Teaming with potential for medical breakthrough, Beyond Boundaries by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis discusses research in neurophysiology and "brain-machine interfaces" (BMIs). The book starts out by explaining how single neurons do not intrinsically process brain activity such as a thought or action, but how brain processes consist of many neurons working as a functional unit. For example, there is no single neuron contains the memory of a Grandmother’s face; one's memories emerge from fields of neurons firing in unified patterns. In addition, the author explains how most brain functions (like memory) are not located in specific anatomical regions, but rather in dynamic patterns of functional activity spread across various regions the brain.
By developing methods for recording and computing detailed patterns of large scale neuronal activity, Nicolelis and other researchers have trained animals to articulately control machine limbs through brain activity alone, i.e. without moving their physical bodies. This BMI research has exciting implications, for example in cases where individuals have lost the function of their legs due to spinal cord damage. Soon they may be equipped with wearable, exoskeleton suits that drive their legs in locomotion by directly reading their brain's neuronal firings. Ideally, such an interface would not require brain implants to record the high-resolution neural activity necessary for tasks like balancing and walking. The author concludes with fascinating speculations on where brain interface technology may lead us and how it might transform our society in centuries to come.
I found Beyond Boundaries to be comprehensive and engaging, but I occasionally had to push myself through the many research details until I approached the more exciting results and conclusions. While reading, I conjured ideas about how such advances might be used in conjunction with virtual worlds and virtual instruments. I imagined people training themselves to control many-limbed digital avatars, or playing virtual instruments with new and unimagined levels of control and articulation. In truth, some of the ideas illustrated in this book are so immense that I have yet to finish digesting them, and I might have to re-read a few chapters to gain a complete picture. But the book is fairly accessible to the general reader, and I would recommend it anyone interested in neuroscience, engineering, or future interfaces.
Beyond boundaries : the new neuroscience of connecting brains with machines--and how it will change our lives