Mapping the 'co-ordinates' of the body and brain will be transformative for biomedical engineering, says Michael I Miller, director of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University:
In the 20th century, GPS helped map the external world with unprecedented accuracy and precision. The 21st century will be about mapping the internal world.
We are starting to map the brain on a micron scale, instead of the millimetre-scale resolution of MRI scanners. This means mapping structural anatomy and neural connectivity patterns. Techniques such as single-cell transcriptomics can map connections at the molecular and cellular levels. If we can understand the brain’s ‘co-ordinates’ – the molecules, cells and connections that drive behaviour – that will be transformative.
Using this information, we will be able to build computational models of entire organ systems and their connectivity. This will allow us to simulate the behaviour of neural and chemical circuits, for example, and predict the flow of disease.
These computational representations of the body’s co-ordinates will also drive the next generation of 3D printing. Integrating molecular function with 3D-printed scaffolds will enable us to engineer functional synthetic tissues. In the brain, this means the possibility of designing artificial neural circuits to enhance memory or restore motor function for patients with neurodegenerative disease. However, the possible impact of such a technology spans all of the organ systems, offering tremendous potential for the future of regenerative medicine and cell-based therapies.
The most successful neuro-prostheses are cortical prostheses such as auditory implants – today, children born deaf can instantly integrate into the world of language. The interesting thing is that the brain of a deaf child learns to hear in a completely different way. Thanks to human evolution, the brain and body learn to use what is available in order to function as fully as possible. We can use this as an example of where neuro-engineering is going.
Powered exo-skeletons offer amazing possibilities, maintaining or restoring independent movement for ageing or disabled people. At Clinatec and the University of Grenoble in France, a paralysed man was able to control all four limbs to successfully walk in a mind-controlled robotic suit linked to a brain implant. This technology will be much more advanced by 2030.
One issue with exo-skeletons is that the data sensors use massive amounts of energy – but the brain does five times as much computing using orders of magnitude less energy. The human body releases energy, so why should we have power sources sitting on our scalps or other uncomfortable places on the skin? The next generation of advanced biomedical machines might be active devices that can be inserted into heart muscle, interfacing with energy coming from the body.
The question will be how to generate and deliver energy to make these devices work. Nano-robots are a very exciting option. The body could use them to support a prosthetic device in the same way that it supports an arm.
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