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First brain chip that treats epilepsy and OCD at the same time

Implanting a chip in the brain as recently done by Elon Musk's company Neurolink can, if done correctly, save patients with severe brain diseases, and that the patients no longer respond to drug treatment

A man implanted with a brain chip and started walking. The image was created by the artificial intelligence software DALEE and is presented as an illustration only and is not a scientific image.
A man implanted with a brain chip and started walking. The image was created by the artificial intelligence software DALEE and is presented as an illustration only and is not a scientific image.

When Amber Pearson encountered a dish of seafood, she would quickly wash her hands with soap and water. She would dip her hands for long minutes under the stream of water, stop, and continue. Again, and again, and again. Sometimes she would do this until her hands bled. And at the next meal, she would repeat the ritual a second and a third time. 

This is a common behavior among OCD patients - "Obsessive-compulsive disorder". Many of the patients feel obliged - as if they were forced by the demon, or in this case, the mind - to repeat some action even when it does not make sense, or even hurts them. The disorder did hurt Amber: every day she would devote up to nine hours to various rituals. It also affected her social life: Amber could not sit next to others while eating, for fear of infections. She was at the family gatherings sitting on the couch, away from other family members. Medicines did not help. Psychological counseling did not change anything.

Then things got even worse.

In her twenties, Amber suffered from a severe epileptic seizure. The doctors looked into the possibility of treating it using an age-old and still extraordinary technique: through stimulation in the depths of the brain. They wanted to implant a tiny device in a certain area of ​​the brain, which could function there as an electrical 'pacemaker'. When the device senses different brain activity patterns than usual, indicating an epileptic attack that will come in the next few seconds or minutes, it will send its own electric currents that will 'reset' the harmful brain activity in that area and balance it. The patient will not even feel that the attack was about to come.

Griya in the depths of the brain has been used for decades in the medical clinic to help deal with a variety of brain diseases. Researchers have used it to moderate the tremors suffered by patients with Parkinson's disease, for example, or to help deal with severe clinical depression that does not respond to other treatments. 

When Amber realized that she was going to receive such a brain implant to deal with epilepsy, she asked - "Can it also be used to treat OCD?"

The answer, on the face of it, is positive. The US Food and Drug Administration allows deep brain stimulation to also be used to treat cases of extreme OCD. But the brain is a complex organ, and epilepsy is a very different disease from OCD. We would not expect that one implant could treat both diseases in the same breath. Amber's doctors were also skeptical about the success of the double treatment. 

But they were willing to try.

control and treatment

Amber's doctors discovered that the epileptic seizures in her brain occurred in an area called the "insular lobe". They had to direct the implant to affect that part of the brain. The compulsive disorder, on the other hand, was concentrated precisely in the "nucleus accumbens", which is associated with motivation and drive to action. These two areas are very close to each other in the brain, so it was possible to try and deal with both situations using only one electrical device.

Doctors implanted a single three-centimeter electrode in Amber's brain. The device served as a sensor that 'listened' to the electrical activity in Amber's brain, and if it sensed a harmful change - it stopped it. In the first phase of treatment, doctors concentrated on preventing epileptic seizures. When they were able to do that, they went on to the second step: programming the device in Amber's brain so that it could also moderate the OCD symptoms.

The external symptoms of OCD are clear: washing hands, repeatedly locking doors, and other repetitive actions. But how are these symptoms expressed in the brain? How can the facility be taught what 'normal' brain activity is, and what brain activity indicates OCD? 

To answer the question, Amber had to spend an extended period of time training the facility. She would function normally, and when she felt the compulsive thoughts taking over her, she would pass a magnet over her head - and the device would feel the change in the magnetic field and realize that this was a special moment. She was also invited to training in the laboratory where she was exposed to seafood to stimulate the acute brain response, and this one documented by the facility.

Once the brain activity was recorded well enough, the device was reprogrammed to deal with both epilepsy and OCD. It does not work continuously, but waits for the fitness hour and only then comes into action for a few seconds. The goal is not to completely stop Amber's habit of washing her hands, for example, but only to curb it so that it does not take over her life.

And so it did happen.

After readjusting the device, the OCD symptoms decreased significantly. If Amber used to spend eight or nine hours a day focusing on the compulsive thoughts and rituals, now they only required thirty minutes of her time throughout the day. The positive effects continued throughout the two years since the device was implanted in her brain. Her hands are no longer bleeding. She can go out with friends again and eat with them in restaurants without losing control. She is even able to sit with her family around the same table, for better or for worse.

But what does it mean?

What is special about Amber? Everything and nothing. Brain devices that could prevent epileptic seizures and other brain devices that alleviated OCD symptoms had already been demonstrated in the past. Amber's case is different because it is one device that controls two brain activities at the same time, and does so according to the programming embedded in it and the signals it receives from the brain.

Figuratively speaking, Amber gained another tiny brain. in a new organ that regulates her brain activity in several different ways. 

It may sound horrifying, but it is a natural phenomenon that is consistent with the way the brain works. Your brain - assuming you are not significantly different from any other person - consists of several organs that work together to produce... well, you. The hippocampus, the amygdala, the frontal lobes, the brain stem - all of these receive nerve inputs from one another, process them, add to them and enrich them and cross the result with the other centers again. Every person is a product of this constant competition and cooperation between the different areas of the brain. 

Amber added one more area, which helps to better monitor the unruly activity in her mind. In the coming decade, we will see more and more patients adding similar areas - artificial, yes, but still having a positive effect - to alleviate harmful disease symptoms. Maybe even more than one symptom. Maybe not just diseases. Maybe also ways of behavior that are not healthy, even if they are not really defined as symptoms of mental illness.

And perhaps we will see such transplants also in completely healthy people - but who strive to expand their abilities and the possibilities open to them.

Elon Musk, one of the most colorful figures in the world of technology today, has been working on realizing this vision these days. And just recently he took another big step in that direction.


Many things can be said about Elon Musk, but he does not shy away from big visions for the future. Back in the early stages when he founded the Neuralink company, he already stated that his goal was to enable humans to communicate telepathically with machines. That is, to think - and make the machine act accordingly. 

Last month, Musk announced that the first person in the world received her new implant, which is called "telepathic". To be clear: the implant is not yet intended for healthy people. Musk himself said Because "the initial users will be those who have lost the ability to use their bodies."

You should pay attention to the words that Musk chooses. He talks about "users", not about "patients" or "experiment participants". For him, he develops technology for users of all types, both sick and healthy. All of Neuerlink's plans, at least those that are open to the public, indicate that the company is indeed moving in this direction. The implant should fit into the skull without being visible under the hair. The electrodes should be flexible and gentle, so as not to damage the brain tissue or cause inflammation, and therefore it will be possible to use them for a long time. And the transplant itself should be performed quickly, efficiently and safely by a surgical robot.

In short, Musk is planning a future for us in which anyone can enter a tattoo shop - and leave with a brain implant and an earring. Maybe without the earring, if it's not in the section.

Threats, concerns and opportunities 

Want to talk about such future concerns? There are plenty of those. In the short and medium term - say, in the next twenty years - we will still have to make sure that the technology is not harmful to the brain. In fact, this fear will remain with us for many more decades, even after the technology is proven to be safe (hopefully). Just as there are still those who claim that long-term experiments should be done to verify the safety of genetically modified fruits, for example, even though these have existed for many decades without having a negative effect on human health.

In the longer term we will have to understand what the political meaning of this technology is. Who does she serve? Who is given access to our minds, and how will we deal with the situation in which the giant companies - say, the conglomerate of Tesla-Neurlink-SpaceX - have the ability in principle to read our thoughts and influence our emotions? These questions cannot be ignored, and we need to start having a discussion about them.

Along with the justified fear of technology and its implications, the great opportunities should also be presented. And they are truly great. Multipurpose brain implants - the kind that can affect many different functions - can change human existence. Students can use them to concentrate on studies. Have you always wanted to write a book? You can use them to gain another hour of concentration and motivation at night, after the children go to sleep. Want to learn a new profession? You can adjust the implant to fast learning mode, one hour a day. Need to drive carefully on the roads? There is a situation for that too. Killing people without feeling pangs of guilt? Don't worry - it will be possible to adjust the implant for this as well.

As mentioned, opportunities abound, for everyone.

There is a name for technologies that can affect many areas of our lives at the same time: General Purpose Technologies. Historians of technology agree that some such technologies of the past were, for example, electricity, the internal combustion engine and the Internet. Once the brain implants reach a sufficiently advanced level that they can affect a variety of brain functions, they will almost immediately enter the category of the most important technologies. A single brain implant could turn a fool into a genius, a lazy person into a hard worker, from a sadistic murderer into a righteous altruist. He will be able to cure - or at least mitigate - the symptoms of many mental illnesses. He will be able to help in detoxification from all types of drugs and addictions. He will be able to replace all types of wines and foods.

These may be far-reaching visions, but there is no reason to think that they are exaggerated. None of this will happen in the current decade, and maybe not in the one after that, but as soon as our brain becomes the next playground of technologies - all this goodness will open up for us.

And yes, also the bad. There will be people who will hack into the minds of others. There will be companies that will try to influence us in ways that are not kosher. There will be tyrants who will brainwash their subjects. Give humanity a rope, and you can be sure that some will use it to hang others - and at some point, themselves. Hell, give humanity an apple, and there will still be some who use it as a projectile. One can only hope that we know how to use technology to do more good than bad. Human history over the past few hundred years shows that we can do it, most of the time. 

Let's hope this time too.