• While human cyborgs may still be the stuff of science fiction, the science may be a little closer to reality following breakthroughs in materials used for neural links and other implants that offer a wide array of benefits, including potential medical advances. Credit: Ociacia/Shutterstock
     While human cyborgs may still be the stuff of science fiction, the science may be a little closer to reality following breakthroughs in materials used for neural links and other implants that offer a wide array of benefits, including potential medical advances. Credit: Ociacia/Shutterstock

Human and Artificial Intelligence Merge

November 25, 2020
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author

Think about a future of controlling technology with brainpower.


A breakthrough in materials could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of electronic implants in the human brain or other parts of the body. The advance could offer an array of biotechnology benefits and allow humans to control unmanned vehicles and other technologies directly with their brains.

The development involves a polythiophene, or PEDOT, chemical structure. The newest materials, which David Martin describes as PEDOT Plus, dramatically enhances electronic implants in the body.

Martin, who is a professor of materials science and engineering and associate dean, research and entrepreneurship, College of Engineering, University of Delaware, explains PEDOT materials have been around for years and can be chemically tailored for different purposes. But the latest discovery builds on this material.

“It’s based on PEDOT, but it’s the plus, something else on the side of the PEDOT, that allows us to better fine-tune either the interactions with the device or the interaction with the tissue, or the long-term stability,” Martin reports.

His university team uses PEDOT as a base to create coatings for electronic medical devices such as brain, ear, eye and heart implants. The American Chemical Society, which announced the most recent advance, hailed the achievement as another step toward the merger of the human brain and artificial intelligence, or cyborgs.

Martin explains that materials have either mechanical properties or electrical properties. These new structures exist in between the two extremes of the engineered abiotic, implantable device and the living, wet, biotic, salty solutions that make up biology.

While PEDOT Plus can improve virtually any implantable device, the implications for brain research are arguably the most mind blowing. Interest in brain-computer interfaces has spawned a new area of research. Doctors use deep brain stimulators to treat Parkinson’s Disease. The U.S. military and others have invested heavily in robotic prosthetics that can be controlled with connections directly to the brain. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University announced last year that they have created nano-size robots that can be injected into the brain or along the spinal column to gather medical data. Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, is researching brain technologies to treat blindness, deafness, paralysis, memory loss and strokes.

“If we could communicate directly with the brain, we could potentially help people who are completely paralyzed to control a computer or move their wheelchair around, turn the lights on and off in the room, send emails, play video games. There’s no reason technologically why this can’t be done,” Martin offers.

Controlling robots or unmanned vehicles with brainpower is another possibility. The PEDOT Plus materials literally improve the interface between electronic implants and biological tissue. Biomedical devices, such as neural, cochlear or heart implants, carry an electronic charge in a solid state. Biological tissue, on the other hand, carries an ionic charge in the wet state. PEDOT Plus is chemically tailored to do both.

In addition, the chemistry of the polymer can be adjusted so that it can adapt to either the specific type of device or the specific type of tissue. For example, common electrodes are often made of stainless steel, iridium, platinum, gold or silicon-based substrates. Whichever is used, PEDOT Plus materials can be chemically tuned to enhance such characteristics as the adhesion, strength or electrical charge.

“But then you can also tailor the polymer chemistry so that it’s designed to interface well with the type of tissue. Whether you’re going after the heart or the eye or the ear, there are specific chemical properties of each of those tissues that you can use to optimize the interaction of the polymer on the coating,” Martin elaborates. “These polymers allow you to change that organic chemistry and create something that’s much more similar to the natural tissue that it’s trying to talk to.”

Read more about PEDOT Plus and how it will change human-machine interaction in the December issue of SIGNAL Magazine online next week.

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