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Feb, 2012

The state of development for BCI devices is really pretty primitive. You have a few companies commercializing EEG headsets (Emotiv and OCZ NIA are the two most well known), but as far as actually controlling anything EEG is pretty poor.

Also, just for reference, by convention "BCI" usually refers to noninvasive recording methods, like electrodes that stick to your head, while "BMI", or "brain-machine interfacing" refers to invasive electrodes that actually get put into the brain.

It's when you start talking about BMI technology that things start looking interesting. However, we're at least 10-15 years away from any meaningful use of that technology in humans. And then, it'll be in paraplegic and locked-in patients with nothing else in their lives. There are a bunch of companies that make commercial BMI equipment for research purposes (Plexon, Neuralynx, Rippl, BlackRock Microsystems, and TDT are the well known ones), but other than one clinical trial (BrainGate II, out of Brown University) no one is currently developing a BMI for immediate clinical translation.

The BrainGate II trial is targeted towards paraplegics: this is pretty rough tech for a patient to handle, so it won't get used for the forseeable future without a good reason; we're not anywhere close to talking about cosmetic neural engineering yet. And, that's after we solve a few big problems standing in the way right now:

- Recording from many thousands or millions of cells at once: we can record from several hundred at a time right now, and we simply have no idea what a system to record from a million neurons simultaneously looks like right now. There's just effectively no realistic tech pipeline at the moment. Note that some researchers don't think this is a problem, because it may turn out to be possible to get good control with only few neurons.

- Biocompatibility: the immune system doesn't like sharp foreign objects that show up in the brain, which leads to potentially dangerous long-term side effects, and lossage of recording capability after a few years because of this immune response. This may be solved with either implants that are so small they're effectively "invisible" to the immune system but still not toxic to the cells (not clear yet if this is possible, but it might be), or new materials, or a biological approach using synthetic biology, or something else yet undiscovered.

- It involves really risky brain surgery. That kind of sets the bar pretty high right there.

Also, it can be easy to get caught up in the awesome technology here and forget that it has to be really good to be useful given all the gigantic risks involved. Brain surgery is forever, and a keyboard is a pretty damn good BMI today that uses a transduction mechanism that's conveniently already there: your hands.

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