Brain Implants and Rewired Monkeys

Someone from the Netherlands gained a small measure of freedom after learning to use a prototype computer-brain interface.

I see that, and experiments with rhesus monkeys, as a good thing.

  1. Communication, Compassion, and a Computer-Brain Interface
  2. Rewiring Paralyzed Monkeys
  3. Bee Brains and Being Human

As usual, I’ll also talk about why I don’t think God is offended when we help folks.


God Doesn’t Make Junk

I think Johnny Cash was right: being so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good doesn’t make sense.

I’ll mostly be talking about new medical tech and brains. What I have to say about that — or is it those? — ties in with why God’s creation doesn’t offend me.

Not that it would matter if it did. God’s God, I’m not, and I’m okay with that.

We’ve known that the universe is a tent, a garment, something temporary, for millennia.

“Of old you laid the earth’s foundations; the heavens are the work of your hands.
“They perish, but you remain; they all wear out like a garment; Like clothing you change them and they are changed,
“but you are the same, your years have no end.”
(Psalms 102:2628)

“He sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; He stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.”
(Isaiah 40:22)

However, that does not make the material world bad. God makes this universe, God is good: and God doesn’t make junk. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 295301, 337349, 1955)

As for the idea that ‘spiritual is good, physical is bad:’ Satan, a fallen angel, is pure spirit; and hardly a poster child for ‘goodness.’ That brings up free will, and that’s another topic. (Catechism, 311, 328336, 391395)


1. Communication, Compassion, and a Computer-Brain Interface


(From UMC Utrecht, via CNN, used w/o permission.)
(“De Bruijne now uses a brain-computer interface to communicate.”
(CNN))

Brain Implant Eases Communication by Late-Stage A.L.S. Patient
Meera Senthilingam, CNN (November 12, 2016)

“In 2008, mother of three Hanneke de Bruijne was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“Over the next eight years, her life would change significantly as the nerves controlling her bodily movements degenerated. She would lose the ability to move her legs, arms, fingers and eventually even her face, leaving her locked inside her body, barely able to communicate with those around her. Breathing would require a mechanical ventilator.

“But in 2015, she received a brain implant that would change her life, bringing back the ability to communicate wherever she was in the world.

” ‘The implant gives me freedom, independence and safety,’ de Bruijne wrote in an email composed on a tablet linked to her implant. ‘It enables me to enjoy my garden and going outdoors in nature.’…”

I agree with Larry D: “This is cool – a perfect marriage of technology and compassion….”1

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” is probably rare. It affects about 2.2 people per 100,000 per year in Europe. Over 1.87 per 100,000 per year are diagnosed in America, and we don’t have accurate numbers for much of the world.

It’s also incurable, so far. Not knowing what causes it in most cases is a problem there. Scientists found a genetic glitch in 5% to 10% of cases.

ALS isn’t the only cause of locked-in syndrome. A remarkable number of things can go wrong with the brain’s connections to the body, and leave our brain’s upper circuits undamaged.

Looking Past the Prototype


(From Brain Center, University Medical Center, Utrecht; via CNN, used w/o permission.)

“…The technology, known as a brain-computer interface, was implanted in Dutch-born de Bruijne, now 59, in October 2015 and has given her accurate and independent control of a computer typing program to put messages together, based solely on her brain activity….

“…’This is a world first,’ said Nick Ramsey, professor of neuroscience at the Brain Center Rudolf Magnus, part of University Medical School Utrecht. ‘It’s a fully implantable system that works at home without need for any experts to make it work.’…”
(Meera Senthilingam, CNN)

My guess is that being internal, apart from the tablet she uses to select letters and display words, makes the system’s interface with her brain more accurate than a conventional scalp EEG setup.

The University Medical Center, Utrecht’s, computer-brain interface is a prototype; with four electrode strips on de Bruijne’s motor cortex. It took her about 28 weeks to learn how to use the system.2

“…De Bruijne is able to communicate at a rate of two letters per minute, which is slower than with her eye tracker, but Ramsey says he plans to make his implant faster and more sophisticated.

” ‘Now, we can start working on systems that have 30 or 60 electrodes to decode sign language … or internal speech,’ he said. ‘Then you could spell the way a deaf person would spell. That’s the goal.’…”
(Meera Senthilingam, CNN)

“It’s for science” doesn’t make everything okay, but this research looks like a good idea. (Catechism, 22922295)

Tests with rhesus monkeys may lead to implants giving paralysis victims at least limited control of their bodies. I’ll get back to that.


2. Rewiring Paralyzed Monkeys


(From Nature, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

‘Brain wi-fi’ reverses leg paralysis in primate first
James Gallagher, BBC News (November 10, 2016)

An implant that beams instructions out of the brain has been used to restore movement in paralysed primates for the first time, say scientists.

“Rhesus monkeys were paralysed in one leg due to a damaged spinal cord.

“The team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology bypassed the injury by sending the instructions straight from the brain to the nerves controlling leg movement.

“Experts said the technology could be ready for human trials within a decade….”

Spinal cord injury isn’t necessarily fatal, not right away. But it’s very serious, so spinal cord injury research seems like a good idea. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology team is working on one of the engineering approaches.

My guess is that we’ll also find ways for coaxing the body’s own systems into regenerating damaged spinal circuits. We’re getting close to that sort of treatment.

Darek Fidyka regained limited control of his legs after doctors replaced parts of his severed spinal cord with olfactory ensheathing cells from his nasal cavity. (BBC News (October 21, 2014)

Medical research generally includes animal testing at some point. computer simulations can be useful.

But data for their programming has to come from somewhere, so we’re back to using animals. Or people. Or deciding that curing disease and treating injuries isn’t worth it.

“Dominion,” not Ownership

From the International Space Station program and the JSC Earth Science & Remote Sensing Unit, ARES Division, Exploration Integration Science Directorate. ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) - This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS).Let’s back up a little, and look at what’s involved in being human.

For starters, we’re pretty hot stuff.

“God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.’ ”
(Genesis 1:28)

4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

“Dominion,” “little less than a god” — a few more cherry-picked verses like that, and I might forget that “little less than a god” isn’t “God.”

Then again, maybe not. I grew up when the results of hubris getting loose were becoming obvious.3

Victorian England’s reputation for religious enthusiasm, plus memories of the London death fog and hydraulic mining, may encourage the notion that a ‘we can do what we like’ attitude is part of Christianity.

I’ve talked about that before. (August 12, 2016; August 5, 2016)

I don’t doubt that at least some Christians acted as if they thought God ordained laissez-faire capitalism. ‘Going native,’ taking on the local lifestyle, is easy. It’s also not necessarily a good idea, and I’ve talked about that before, too. (August 14, 2016)

We have “dominion,” so we can plunder and pillage this world. That doesn’t make it a good idea. I talked about free will and consequences last Sunday. (November 13, 2016)

As I keep saying, I take the Bible, sacred scripture, very seriously. (Catechism, 101133)

But it’s not ‘just the Bible and me,’ and that’s yet another topic.4

When I read about our “dominion,” and nature that’s “little less than a god,” I also remember the parable of talents in Matthew 25:1430. Also what our Lord said about expectations:

“…Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
(Luke 12:48)

Our dominion is a stewardship of God’s world: for our reasonable use, and for future generations. (Catechism, 216, 373, 24022406, 2415)

We live in a vast, ancient, and incredibly precious world; and we’re in charge. That sort of responsibility shouldn’t encourage smug complacency.

Exodus, Deuteronomy, and EU Directive 2010/63/EU

Human nature being what it is, folks sometimes need to be told what’s reasonable, and what’s not. Sometimes we act badly, anyway. (November 6, 2016)

” ‘For six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you must rest, that your ox and your ass may also have rest, and that the son of your maidservant and the alien may be refreshed.”
(Exodus 23:12)

2 ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out grain.”
(Deuteronomy 25:4)

William Hogarth’sThe Four Stages of Cruelty” didn’t stop cruelty to animals in 1751, but may have helped get the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822 past Parliament.

More laws followed, including the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, Cruelty to Animals Act 1876, and — eventually — Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, Animal Welfare Act 2006, and EU Directive 2010/63/EU.

On my side of the Atlantic, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 is still the only Federal law in the United States regulating the treatment of animals in research and exhibition.

Some folks think it’s too restrictive, some think it doesn’t do enough. I think it’s not perfect, and that it’s a step in the right direction.

I love animals, and that’s okay. But if I started loving animals the way I love my wife — that’d be wrong on several levels. (Catechism, 24152418)

About using animals for medical research, I think that’s reasonable. Letting them suffer or die needlessly isn’t. Being human, “little less than a god,” comes with responsibilities. (Catechism, 24172418)


3. Bee Brains and Being Human


(From Getty Images, via BBC, used w/o permission.)
(“Bees may be stuck in the present, with no concept of future or past”
(BBC Future))

When it comes to brainpower, we humans think our minds are the bees’ knees – but are we really much smarter than other animals?
David Robson, BBC Future (November 9, 2016)

“The guests lining up outside a Brisbane gallery were not your typical culture vultures; in fact, until recently they’d never seen a painting in their life. But with just a little training, they developed their own artistic taste, showing a clear preference for Picasso’s crystalline constructions or Monet’s dreamy soft focus as they wandered lazily through the different rooms.

“It’s little wonder that their talents created such a buzz, considering that they were working with a brain smaller than a pin head: these bona fide art critics were your common or garden honey bees, trained to find a syrupy surprise behind one or other of the artists’ work….”

The bee study’s online abstract didn’t say how, or whether, researchers kept bees from smelling the “syrupy surprise.” I didn’t have access to the study itself,5 but assume that they adequately removed variables like odor from the experiment.

About the question in David Robson’s title, “…are we really much smarter than other animals?” — his answer, briefly, is “yes.”

He points to language, what I’ll call collective memory, and our knack of remembering what’s happened before and imagining what could be.

I’ll grant that over the last few decades scientists have been learning that quite a few non-human critters have language of a sort, and act as if they remember what they’ve experienced. Some, like the veined octopus he mentioned, may also plan ahead.6

Genesis, Plato’s Cave, and God’s Assessment

That shouldn’t be surprising. Genesis 2:7 tells us we’re made from the stuff of this world — “clay,” which is a play on words: adam, “man;” and adama, “ground.” Humor in the Bible, which also shouldn’t be surprising, and that’s yet again another topic.

Humans are animals, but not just animals. (Catechism, 1951)

I’m not sure why some folks act as if being an animal is — well, beastly.

The notion that ‘spiritual’ is good and ‘material’ is bad goes back at least to Plato’s theory of forms. That’s the assertion that the highest reality is the realm of ideas, not the changing material world. Plato’s cave is probably the idea’s best-known illustration.

Grabbing that bit of reality and running in a particular direction, I could assume that spirit and matter aren’t the same (true); and that they’re at war (not so much).

That’s not what the Church says. (Catechism, 285)

Yes, there’s more to reality than what we can see, touch, or measure. Humans are creatures made of matter and spirit. (Catechism, 360367)

Gnosticism, I’m over-simplifying here, embraces the idea that physical reality is bad: so we should all be “spiritual.” It could have roots in the Platonic Academy, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, or ‘all of the above.’

I’ll go with God’s assessment of “everything he had made.” It is “very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

I’m human, so I’m an animal. I’m also a person; someone can think, and decide what I do. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 3538, 17041709, 17491754, 1804, 1951)

I say about once a month. (September 18, 2016; August 5, 2016; July 15, 2016)

Where was I? Bees, brains, Plato’s cave. Right.

David Robson touches on another question: “Are Big Brains a Waste of Space?

Big Brains and Percentages

The answer was a no-brainer for many when I was growing up. Quite a few folks figured that using our brains, developing better gadgets, would inevitably lead to a better tomorrow.

Hand-wringing over doom, destruction, and the imminent extinction of cute animals is more fashionable these days, and I’ve talked about that before. (October 30, 2016; August 12, 2016)

Robson points out that about 20% of the body’s energy budget goes into running our brains. That’s a lot of power for something like 2% of our weight.

Maybe you’ve read that it’s 25%. I did a little checking, and learned that our brains burn about 25% of our glucose, 20% of our oxygen, and take about 15% of our heart’s output. I figure 20% is still a pretty good number for net energy consumption.7

Anyway, Robson points out that bigger brains let critters ‘work smarter, not harder.’ He didn’t put it that way. I think he’s right, though.

Collecting, processing, storing, and retrieving data should help critters find food and avoid being eaten more efficiently.

Having big brains is one thing. Using them wisely and well: is still another topic.

More of my take on life, the universe, and being human:


1 A tip of the hat to Larry D:

2 More:

3 I suspect that hubris, self-confidence above and beyond the call of reason, contributed to atrocities like the Auschwitz, Dachau, Unit 731, Tuskegee, and Willowbrook experiments. (November 11, 2016; October 7, 2016; July 31, 2016)

The problem, as I see it, isn’t science. We’ve got brains and are expected to use them: wisely. (Catechism, 22922296)

4 The Bible, Magisterium, and Tradition with a capital “T:”

  • BIBLE: Sacred Scripture: the books which contain the truth of God’s Revelation and were composed by human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit (105). The Bible contains both the forty-six books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (120). See Old Testament; New Testament.”
  • MAGISTERIUM: The living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture), or in the form of Tradition. The Magisterium ensures the Church’s fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles in matters of faith and morals (85, 890, 2033).”
  • TRADITION: The living transmission of the message of the Gospel in the Church. The oral preaching of the Apostles, and the written message of salvation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Bible), are conserved and handed on as the deposit of faith through the apostolic succession in the Church. Both the living Tradition and the written Scriptures have their common source in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (7582). The theological, liturgical, disciplinary, and devotional traditions of the local churches both contain and can be distinguished from this apostolic Tradition (83).”

And see Catechism, 95, 113, 174, and 126.

5 Brains, memory, and all that:

6 Smart octopi:

7 Analyzing brains:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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