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Optobionics is developing an artificial retina that is being used to help partially restore vision in people with age-related degeneration or retinal diseases.
A small silicon chip with 5,000 electrodes is implanted into the back of the eye. Each electrode transforms incoming light into electrochemical pulses that stimulate existing retinal cells. The first patients are now able to see more light, although cannot yet make out visual details.
This advancement follows a cochlear implant made by Advanced Bionics, which was installed last month in Cora Jean Kleppe, 73. She can now hear her grandchildren and function better in life.
The amazing part is the brain only needs a little bit of crude information to reconstruct the sounds or sights around it. These devices are not sending detailed information, but only rudimentary electrical signals based on light impinging on an electrode or a small microphone mounted on their head. Your brain can adapt its neuron network to properly interpret the environment based on whatever information it can scrounge from these sorts of devices. Don’t be surprised if these first bionic patients experience improved responses over time.
Most philosophers and scientists today firmly believe that a little controller sitting somewhere in your head directing conscious activities does not exist, as René Descartes purported in the 17th century. Consciousness somehow arises from, as is quoted here, “highly organized brain chemistry”. This is somewhat understated, however, because your consciousness certainly is the result of a “highly organized” system, but there’s more than just chemistry.
A few major players in consciousness thinking are quoted. Their ideas for the origins of consciousness cover the gamut from “mundane” mechanisms or it’s a fundamental property of the Universe, like gravity, to the idea that consciousness is only an illusion.
Consider each carefully. You must keep in mind that your brain is a very complex system and no one yet knows the power of billions of interconnected neurons.
Your brain is composed of some 100 billion interconnected neurons. Maybe it’s not too much of a leap of faith to accept that this extremely complicated network allows you to function and interact with your environment each and every day. For example, light from your computer monitor is being input, organized, and interpreted to allow you to read these words.
However, there’s more to this picture: you also are understanding these words, which allows you to form your own impressions, biases, and conclusions. You will make a decision based on your personal interests and history whether or not to click on the links below. And, you will consider if you will ever return to this web site.
This example just touches the surface of the extended functions and capabilities of your brain above and beyond the more rudimentary tasks of maintaining your heart beat and breathing cycles. We often attribute these “extra” amazing properties, including your personal awareness of yourself (“I think therefore I am!“), to your consciousness.
But, what is your consciousness? Where is it located in your brain, if anywhere? How does is come to be? Does a separate consciousness even exist outside the context of your brain’s neuron networks?
These very difficult questions have been debated since, well, since man become conscious!
Although it’s not a first for today’s scientists, Johnjoe McFadden is presenting another hypothesis for a physical correlate of consciousness. His idea centers on how electromagnetic fields resulting from synchronous electrical activity between neurons somehow feeds back to the neurons to enhance or alter their communication.
I am currently reviewing McFadden’s paper and will report back once I’ve finished. After my initial skim I did not see any equations, graphs, or illustrative examples of computational or experimental work. This greatly concerns me as to how far McFadden’s “theory” (as he claims) has moved beyond more than just a thought he came up with while singing in the shower.
[Read the paper describing the idea (PDF). Johnjoe McFadden Journal of Consciousness Studies 9, p. 23-50 (2002)]
This group at Brown University is trying to develop an implantable electrode array that will transmit your thoughts into a corresponding action via a connected computer, robot, or electrodes elsewhere in your body.
Currently, they are working to provide patients with debilitating diseases, like locked-in syndrome, with more physical control in their lives. These research efforts will prove to be critical stepping stones for making neuron devices commonplace prosthetics and cosmetics in our culture.
The research group is also trying to finance a company, called Cyberkinetics, Inc., to help bring these new technologies into the marketplace.
Your brain is absolutely remarkable. Because of the unique and complex method in which neurons organize themselves to keep your body alive and allow it to interact with the environment, a young girl in Holland with only 50% of her brain can now speak two languages.
Nerves talk to one another by passing electrical pulses through a complex network of “telephone lines”. Unfortunately, these cells can sometimes be a little too chatty causing your heart, for example, to beat in erratic and devastating ways.
A new experiment at New York University slightly altered the genetic make-up of cells in a small neuron network forcing them to hang up the phone.
Although this technique may not provide real-time, or dynamic control of neuron behaviors, it brings a new understanding in the relationship between genetic structure and neuron function. It also might lead to new treatments for diseases related by run away electrical activity.
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