A group of Mark Zuckerberg-funded researchers is testing implantable brain devices as part of a $5 billion quest to end disease
- 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).
- Part of the CZI is the CZ Biohub, which now employs 95 top-notch scientists from Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF.
- Biohub researchers 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 the alleged goal of curing all disease within a generation.
A less publicized component of the $5 billion program includes work on brain-machine interfaces, devices that essentially translate thoughts into commands. 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.
But researchers employed by a separate Zuckerberg-funded initiative called the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub are focusing on the therapeutic capabilities of brain-machine interfaces. One 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 top-notch scientific journal Nature on New Year's Eve, the 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. Scientists refer to the interference as "therapy" because it could eventually be used to treat diseases like epilepsy or Parkinson's by stopping a seizure or other disruptive motion just as it starts.
"Our device is able to monitor the primate's brain while it's providing the therapy so you know exactly what's happening," Rikky Muller, a co-author of the new study and an assistant professor of computer
Muller said her research at the Biohub is walled off from similar work being done on brain-computer interfaces at Facebook.
The company's notoriously secretive Building 8 program underwent a recent re-shuffling 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.
A brain device that changes behavior automatically
In Muller's latest paper, published on New Year's Eve in the science journal Nature, she and a team of researchers from Berkeley and a medical device startup called Cortera detailed how they used their Wand device 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.
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), from spinal cord injury to 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 either 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 co-founder 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 co-president 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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