The Big Idea: Neurochips will fix our brains

I invented the world’s first brain chip. It can cure epilepsy, dementia, chronic pain and addiction—if Canada is ready to invest.

Naweed Syed
A photo of a Pakistani man in a suit and tie
A photo of a Pakistani man in a suit and tie
(Photo illustration by Maclean’s, background illustration via iStock)

During my childhood summers in Pakistan, I used to go to the beach and watch the crabs. Most of them were docile but one day, a certain crab kept attacking its neighbours. I wondered: what made that crab so aggressive? That question planted a seed of curiosity in me. I knew it all had to do with the brain, and that led me to the field of neuroscience. 

Off I went to Karachi University and then to the University of Leeds, where I studied the brains of simpler organisms like snails. (They have fewer but larger brain cells: a snail has around 20,000, compared to a human’s 85 billion.) In 1988, I moved to Canada to become a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, and I’ve been there ever since. Over the years, I’ve worn multiple hats—neuroscience professor and department head of cell biology and anatomy, as well as research director at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children’s Hospital.

READ: My students are using ChatGPT to write papers and answer exam questions—and I support it

These days, I research neurological ailments like dementia, Parkinson’s and epilepsy. More than 747,000 Canadians struggle with retaining memories and communicating due to dementia. The economic burden of the disease, including hospital stays and forced early retirement, costs Canadian society $40.1 billion in 2020 alone. Parkinson’s and epilepsy—which impact 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians respectively—also take a heavy toll. These numbers will increase as the country’s seniors population grows in the next 20 years. Here’s the biggest obstacle when it comes to curing these conditions: there are no natural methods to remedy them. If the brain is impacted by adverse events like stroke, trauma or disease, the damaged brain cells do not automatically replace themselves like other forms of cells. There is no way to naturally regain losses of brain function.

We need an innovative approach to solve these problems: neurochips. Typically made of silicon and metals like gold and titanium—and smaller than a fingernail in size—these are electronic devices that link a person’s brain to a computer. In January, Elon Musk’s Neuralink made headlines when it implanted a neurochip in the brain of a human being for the first time. Neuralink’s invention was built on my own research; after all, I built the world’s first neurochip in 2004. 

At that time, I designed my neurochip to record data from large networks of brain cells. Here’s how it worked: my team dissected a test animal and placed its brain cells on a neurochip. Then, we used it to send a positive charge to stimulate a neuron, which fired an impulse that activated a connected neuron. We were then able to detect and record its response. Eventually, we successfully replicated the process in a live animal.

With this neurochip, my University of Calgary team accurately monitored a rat’s brain activity for eight months. Later, we reconstructed memories extracted from a brain cell. Essentially, we recorded the respiratory neural impulses of a test animal, and then replicated those breathing patterns in a tissue culture dish. With more research, we realized this technology can potentially record brain activity, which can then be used to repair damaged brains and regain lost brain function. A true bionic hybrid—an interface where natural brain cells and electronic chips could seamlessly communicate—is possible. 

Over the past 20 years, we’ve honed this technology with the promise of curing epilepsy. When epileptic patients don’t respond to drugs, neurosurgeons often remove sections of brain tissue that might be responsible for the seizures. But the technology that hospitals often use to spot these faulty sections only produces well-educated guesses, so we’ve designed a neurochip and wireless electrodes that can be surgically implanted directly on the brain surface to detect spikes in activity underlying the seizures. Armed with our neurochips, neurosurgeons will be able to locate seizure-triggering sites more precisely. We aim to commercialize this technology and, in the future, develop cochlear implants that can detect and warn patients about oncoming seizures and notify paramedics with their location.

Neurochips have many other potential applications. For people coping with chronic pain, we can program chips to lock onto the frequencies of nerves carrying pain information and prevent them from reaching the spinal cord and brain. This would remove much of the pain these people experience. When it comes to drug addiction, we can implant surface electrodes that block the brain neuron patterns that trigger craving behaviour. When the craving disappears, so does the addiction.

While our current neurochip for epileptics is designed to be embedded in the top layer of brain cells, Musk’s neurochip penetrates more deeply into the brain, which is more effective but comes with higher risks. For example, heat transfer from the neurochip may damage nearby brain cells. Blood flow in the brain could move the neurochip and cause damage. Scarring from implantation surgery could dislodge the neurochip. And if anything goes wrong, surgery to address the issue would be just as invasive as the initial surgery. Our neurochip carries these same risks, but the deeper the implant, the bigger the danger.

We at the University of Calgary aim to develop our technologies as safely as possible. But I feel torn, because this field is high-risk, high-reward: we can’t take big strides without making sacrifices. There is no other way to understand and repair damaged brains. That’s why striking a balance between innovation and ethical responsibility is crucial as we look ahead to the future.

READ: The Year Ahead: Science and Technology in 2024

Earlier this month, Musk made headlines again when he claimed that the neurochip-implanted patient could now control a computer mouse with his thoughts. He may have a reputation for making far-fetched claims, but this work is very much possible today. Brain chips are no longer confined to the realm of science fiction. Mind-controlled interfaces might soon fill our everyday lives, allowing folks to drive cars or operate drones with their thoughts. Such semi-autonomous devices may even become the norm in hospitals. For example, surgeons could utilize robots connected to their own brains to perform complex surgeries more safely and efficiently, reducing the negative effects of human error and fatigue. In the coming decades, I wouldn’t be surprised to see paraplegics getting chips implanted in their spinal cords, which will give them restored function and allow some of them to even walk again. We might even one day be able to return some memories to people with Alzheimer’s and partially re-establish function in those with Parkinson’s disease, as well as restore vision in those who have lost it. 

Get our top stories sent directly to your inbox twice a week

Along with Neuralink, there are 40 other labs conducting research in this field worldwide. We are trying to tap into the reality that we are “natural cyborgs”: beings who can connect with things automatically, whether it’s a cellphone or a hammer. Our neurochips are all about how we can facilitate those connections.

But first, we need to undertake years of extensive—and expensive—research to turn these tantalizing future projections into realities. Despite possessing some of the most brilliant minds in neuroscience, Canada is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to neurotechnology. We’re attempting to understand millions of years of evolution, so there will inevitably be a lot of trial and error in our work. Convincing Canadian stakeholders to invest in high-risk ventures requires a paradigm shift in mindset that prioritizes the long-term benefits these technologies will bring to humanity. Our efforts can change millions of lives, transform the health care system and save our society billions of dollars. Finding the necessary support for my endeavours isn’t always easy, but the endless possibilities of this technology motivates me to keep going. 

—As told to Ali Amad