Brain-Computer Interfaces Bridge Technology and Health Care

Experts weigh in at UT’s Hook ‘Em House at SXSW

You don’t have to understand neuroscience to comprehend the joy that patients are experiencing with the technological, almost sci-fi advancements in the study of the brain.

In recorded messages played before a South by Southwest panel on brain-computer interfaces at UT’s Hook ’Em House at Antone’s, the feeling was palpable on Friday.

“Living with this challenging disease for the better part of 30 years is very, very difficult,” Richard R. said, who is living with multiple sclerosis. “You cannot underestimate the value of hope.”

Brain-computer interface technology, or BCI, may sound like a nascent concept. But researchers at the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin are ahead of the curve, thinking about how the technology can improve someone’s everyday life. Others are contemplating about BCI’s societal impact, not to mention the legal and ethical questions of having a computer chip wired to your brain.

Everyone from inquisitive SXSW badge holders to the VILs —Very Important Longhorns — crammed into the Longhorn Loft to hear an hour-long panel that captured the imaginative spirit and ingenuity of this cutting-edge research.

“Over my entire career, I’ve watched horrible neurological illnesses that robbed people in their ability to move, to speak, to understand and to feel,” said David Paydarfar, professor and chair of neurology at Dell Medical School. “This ultimately in many instances leads to early choice to die because the building blocks of what it is for them to feel is lost.

“Now for the first time, the pipeline of discovery is accelerating. A lot is right here. In Austin.”

BCI technology captured the media’s attention once Neuralink, a company owned by Elon Musk, announced it had successfully implanted a chip in a human brain. The unidentified patient has made a full recovery and can operate a computer mouse with their thoughts, according to the company.

Still, many questions remain how a small, coin-sized chip implanted in the skill with wires connected to the brain can help, hurt or influence daily functions.

“Almost everything you see on YouTube today, like moving with robotic arms, this is done with a 1989 device,” said Matt Angle, chief executive officer of Paradromics. “Brain computer interfaces haven’t advanced since 1989.”

And almost in the same breath, Angle added, “We’re about to see an explosion of applications.”

Would someone, a patient or a company, be willing to cut corners to improve their own quality of life? Or the financial bottom line? That question alone prompted panel moderator, physical and policy research Kavita Patel to note that individual eagerness may trump oversight.

“Consumers will probably be more interested than can the pace of let’s say the FDA or any regulatory framework can be developed,” Patel said.

Currently, there are approximately 16 BCI devices approved by the FDA. University of Maryland law professor Amanda Pustilnik compared the current legal framework akin to “a new highway system overlayed on existing rules and regulations.” Then when you add in possible Congressional oversight and more regulations, well, it’s tricky.

“You’re all here because you heard of BCI, and that’s great,” Pustilnik said. “ But on the other hand, hype can be scary — speculative sensational risk.”

This isn’t science fiction. BCI technology is here. Devices are “out there, they’ve been approved,” Paydarfar said. “But how do we optimize them for other things? We haven’t fully worked it out yet.”

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