As documented in other posts on this blog, mutliple neural prosthetic devices are currently being developed by startup companies throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. Practically all of these startups are pursuing the well-established R&D strategy of building a device to treat a specific neurological disorder and going through a lengthy process toward eventual FDA approval and reimbursement by private and government-run health insurance companies. In following with this R&D strategy, the resulting device is usually fully implanted and contains only the circuitry needed for its primary function to treat a specific disorder. The device is designed for autonomous operation without user accessibility, and any device’s software tuning/upgrade requires a physician and specialized clinical equipment. These features are aimed at limiting the manufacturer’s and surgeon’s liabilities.
Here, I would like to propose a possibility of developing the consumer-oriented neural interfaces. Such a strategy is inspired by recent developments in the consumer electronics industry and, particularly, by a wide adoption of body-worn health monitoring gadgets (such as a sleep sensor Lark, EEG monitoring device Mynd, and muscle stimulator Compex). The proposed new strategy requires a fundamental shift in the user attitudes toward body-worn neural interfaces. Instead of treating the neural interface as a “band-aid” for restoring the lost or damaged neurological function, the users would treat the neural interface as a sensory or motor extension of their existing own nervous system. The following table illustrates the key attributes that differentiate a conventional neurological treatment device from a consumer-oriented device:
||Repair of lost/damaged neural functions
||Enhanced use and preventing the decay of existing neural functions due to Alzheimer’s
||Health insurance company
||Electrodes, active electronics
||Electrodes only (minimally-invasive placement)
|Body-worn interface (BWI)
||Telemetry for battery re-charging and data input/output
||User-controlled multi-purpose graphical computer interface
|Placement of BWI
||Inconspicuous or hidden from view
|Operation of BWI
||Primarily by a physician
||By the end user
|Communication with other devices
||None (standalone use)
||Standard wireless protocols (Bluetooth, WiFi, 3G)
As can be seen in the table above, the fundamental changes in the R&D strategy relate to every aspect from the device marketing to its configuration, operation, and user control. The reduced complexity and size of the implanted device are crucial for allowing a minimally invasive implantation that can be performed by a neurologist (rather than a neurosurgeon) in an outpatient clinic. Fabrication of a simple implantable device combined with a simple surgery can dramatically reduce the overall user cost (perhaps to a sub-$10,000 level) and therefore make the devices applicable for non-medical applications, such as memory improvement, cognitive training, and around-the-clock personal assistance.
Continuing the parallel with the consumer electronics, let’s think for a moment about our computer use just 10 years ago. The computers back then could serve specific functions, such as data entry, word processing, accounting, etc. Our everyday lives, however, have been rather “un-tethered”, as we lived our lives oblivious to a possibility of having constant access to our email inbox or a Facebook status. There is no denying, that we are evolving into a new social species, the “homo twitterus”, with the reported ~60% of smartphone users waking up voluntarily during the night to check their messages. Let’s compare that with our evolving attitude toward the neural interfaces. In the classic SciFi movies Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and The Matrix (1999), a images of the brain and spinal interfaces were positively repulsive. A decade later, in the movie Tron: Legacy (2010), the Identity Discs worn by the Grid inhabitants, prominently featured on their back, appear rather attractive and stylish. The public interest in the consumer-oriented neural interfaces may start initially among the techno-gadget aficionados and gradually spread to general population. Similar evolution has occured with the computer use and has now reached the stage where pure functionality and low cost of the device are no longer as important as its esthetic, social-status, and “coolness” appeal (think of Apple’s Macbook Air, iPad, and iPhone). While many Android phones are arguably more feature-rich and less expensive than iPhone 4S, Apple Inc. is enjoying robust growth by strengthening its deep personal relationship with customers and by changing their lifestyle in a profound way. The proposed consumer uses of neural interfaces can bring such device-user relationship to a whole new level, with the person’s everyday life being dependent on bidirectional exchange with their body-worn personal assistant. A rich virtual environment provided by the neural interface can be used, for example, by retired baby-boomers for muscle exercise and rehabilitation; memory improvement and cognitive fitness; and learning of visual and motor skills (e.g. golf, tennis, driving). Many other applications, perhaps even more pervasive and lifestyle-changing (such as novel sensory/motor modalities), could emerge as the neural interface technology takes hold in the society.