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Chan-Zuckerberg researchers test implantable brain devices on primates

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Mark ZuckerbergMark Zuckerberg.REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife, Priscilla Chan, have sold 29 million Facebook shares to raise $5 billion for an ambitious biomedical-research program called the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).
  • Related to the CZI is the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub, which employs top-notch scientists from Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and UC San Francisco.
  • Researchers including a Biohub investigator are studying a wireless implantable brain device, called the “Wand” for short, in primates.
  • Published on New Year’s Eve, their first study details how the Wand records, stimulates, and disrupts movement in real time.

Mark Zuckerberg has sold close to 30 million shares of Facebook to fund an ambitious biomedical-research project, called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, with a goal of curing all disease within a generation.

A less publicized initiative related to the $5 billion program includes work on brain-machine interfaces, devices that essentially translate thoughts into commands. One recent project is a wireless brain implant that can record, stimulate, and disrupt the movement of a monkey in real time.

In a paper published in the highly cited scientific journal Nature on New Year’s Eve, researchers detail a wireless brain device implanted in a primate that records, stimulates, and modifies its brain activity in real time, sensing a normal movement and stopping it immediately. One of those researchers is an investigator with the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a nonprofit medical research group related to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. 

Scientists refer to the interference as “therapy” because it is designed to be used to treat diseases like epilepsy or Parkinson’s by stopping a seizure or other disruptive motion as it starts.

“Our device is able to monitor the brain while it’s providing the therapy, so you know exactly what’s happening,” Rikky Muller, a coauthor of the new study, told Business Insider. A professor of computer science and engineering at UC Berkeley, Muller is also a CZ Biohub investigator. 

The applications of brain-machine interfaces are far-reaching: While some researchers focus on using them to help assist people with spinal-cord injuries or other illnesses that affect movement, others aim to see them transform how everyone interacts with laptops and smartphones. Both a division at Facebook, formerly called Building 8, as well as an Elon Musk-founded company, called Neuralink, have said they are working on the latter.

Muller said her research at the Biohub is walled off from the other work on brain-computer interfaces being done at Facebook.

The company’s notoriously secretive Building 8 program underwent a recent reshuffling that included killing off the Building 8 label and shifting its experimental projects to new divisions. Earlier this year, Business Insider exclusively reported that the program’s director had helped create an armband that transformed words into understandable vibrations.

Read more: Facebook’s secretive hardware group made an armband that lets you ‘hear’ through your skin, a key part of the company’s bigger plan to embed computers in our bodies

A brain device that changes behavior automatically

In Muller’s paper, she and a team of researchers from Berkeley and a medical-device startup called Cortera detailed how they used a device they label the “Wand” to stop a monkey from doing a trained behavior. In this case, the behavior involved moving a cursor to a target on a screen using a joystick and holding the target there for a set period of time.

cz biohub monkey wand 1Placed on top of the monkey’s head, the wireless, palm-sized Wand device connected directly to its brain and could record, stimulate, and modify its behavior in real time.Nature Biomedical Engineering / Chan-Zuckerberg BiohubPlaced on top of the monkey’s head, the wireless, palm-sized Wand device connected directly to its brain. From there, it was able to record, stimulate, and modify the monkey’s behavior in real time.

Read more: You can control this new software with your brain, and it should make Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg nervous

The Wand could “sense” when the primate was about to move the joystick and stop that movement with a targeted electric signal sent to the right part of its brain, Muller said. And since the machine was wireless, the monkey didn’t need to be physically confined or attached to anything for it to work.

“This device is game-changing in the sense that you could have a subject that’s completely free-moving and it would autonomously, or automatically, know” when and how to disrupt its movement, said Muller.

‘We want people to do the thing that’s crazy, the thing that other people wouldn’t try’

The Wand could one day have applications for a range of ailments that affect movement (also called motor skills), including spinal-cord injuries and epilepsy.

“Right now we can take a specific motor function, sense that it’s happening, and disrupt it,” said Muller.

That’s a big departure from current devices, which typically require multiple pieces of bulky equipment and can only sense movement or disrupt it at one time. Muller’s device does both at once. To do so, it uses 128 electrodes, or conductors, placed directly into the primate’s brain — roughly 31 times more electrodes than today’s human-grade brain-computer devices, which are limited to 4-8 electrodes.

“I believe this device opens up possibilities for new types of treatments,” said Muller.

Muller is also the cofounder and chair of the board of Cortera, which has received grant funding from The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health. Her work on brain-machine interfaces is just one component of a broader set of projects under the CZ Biohub umbrella.

Joe DeRisi, the copresident of the Biohub and a professor of biophysics at UCSF, told Business Insider that the initiative aims to help bolster the research projects being done by local scientists, to build important medical devices that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and to “push boundaries.”

“We want people to do the thing that’s crazy, the thing that other people wouldn’t try,” DeRisi said.

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