I read today in Scientific American (Jan 2013 issue) about the work of Kacy Cullen and Douglas Smith (with University of Pennsylvania): this brilliant duo has been working on devising a neural adapter for jacking into human peripheral nervous system (PNS) as an interface for next-generation prosthetics. In particular, Cullen and Smith have been able to “stretch-grow” neural axons in a lab as a kind of neural bio-wire, one end of which can grow around a polymer input of a prosthetic device and the other (axonal) end can branch into a host PNS.
Cullen and Smith mention the usual complications: potential immune rejection of a hybrid interface, coding issues (will the brain be able to communicate with a prosthesis via such neural bridge?). As I read this it occurred to me that some of these complications might be a bit less daunting in a brain-to-brain or PNS-to-PNS interface (as opposed to brain-to-machine or PNS-to-machine interfaces).
Here are some BBI (brain-to-brain) application possibilities (arguably, far-fetched and possibly technically impossible, yet potentially enticing) that occured to me, the possibilities of literally building bridges between people (and the fellow neural colonies of the animal kingdom). (To clarify, Cullen and Douglas focus on brain-to-machine interface applications of their lab-grown axons, not any of these potential brain-to-brain, human-to-animal applications that I speculate about below).
- using a “neural bridge” to attempt to jumpstart (i.e. awaken from within) a comatose brain (a proof-of-principle experiment would involve a PNS-to-PNS experiment where a non-comatose/normal subject has his/her hand motor neurons jacked into a wrist of a comatose subject via a neural bridge; imagine a volunteer relative with guarding mandate have a neural bridge spliced into his, say, right hand motor neurons with the other end of the neural bridge spliced into the severed hand nerves of a comatose relative; following the neural adaptation phase of the neural bridge growing into the PNS of each respective host, a a normal subject could attempt to manipulate the hand of a comatose relative; etc, etc; up and up the spinal cord with the eventual CNS-to-CNS linkup)
- using “neural bridges” for empathy building and relational breakthroughs (that would allow a relational duality of “You” and “I” to become – if only temporarily – a shared “We,” with a shared sense of “am-ness”)
- using “neural bridges” to unite the neural colonies of the neural tribe across what we nowadays call “species” (i.e. linking up a ”human” to a “non-human” - recall the Neural Tribe meme that a neuron is a neuron regardless of the animal form that it inhabits; see my discussion of a potential Brain-to-Brain Interface for additional context).