This man grows "live electrodes" in a Pennsylvania lab to create the ultimate brain implant
The scene must be weird: PhD students growing neurons with very long axons and the thickness of a hair; postdoctoral fellows taking them one by one and putting them in biodegradable polymer tubes; university professors opening the brains of dozens of rats to test in vivo this kind of live electrodes; and, above all, Kacy Cullen supervising the play.
Cullen, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has been obsessed for years with taking all those metal devices that have been used since the 1980s in deep brain stimulation and sending them to the loft of history. It's not easy and it's not even close, but what the Cullen team is doing is, at least, worth looking at closely.
In search of a 100% biological interface
In recent years, the idea of creating a "brain-computer interface" has abandoned science fiction books to invade the business plans of dozens of startups around the world. The best known, without a doubt, is Elon Musk's Neuralink and its microscopic threads that, full of sensors, would cross the brain.
The problem of all these companies, Neuralink included, is a thing called 'reality'. The technology, even with solutions as creative as Musk's 'sewing machine', is still far from being able to "fuse our brains with artificial intelligence." Moreover, lowering the demands, it is not even close to being able to record all the activity of the brain.
And the reason, in large part, is precisely Cullen's declared enemy: exogenous systems that, when integrated into the brain, damage it, alter it or end up generating rejection. Even flexible electrodes, which after decades of research are finally yielding acceptable results, are malfunctioning and leave much to be desired.
The solution, at least on paper, is to create "live electrodes". That is, neural chains grown from induced stem cells that, with different methods (the best known is the still experimental optogenetics) manage to map the functioning of the brain and become very very deep stimulation tools.
Cullen has tested nearly a hundred rats and his initial data confirms that the live electrodes remain structurally and functionally active for over a month and a half. He also thinks his technology could be ready for human testing in four to five years. I would not bet on it, but in view of the results I do believe that the idea of the biological interface is the development that has the most potential to become the standard in the still distant human-computer integration. We will be aware.