It might seem like something out of Star Trek, but people controlling so-called ‘smartbrains’ with their own thoughts could happen sooner than you think.

A smartbrain is a more common term for what biomedical engineers refer to as a brain–machine interface (BMI) – that is, a direct communication pathway between electrical activity in the brain and an external device such as a computer or a robotic limb.

UNSW biomedical engineering expert Associate Professor Mohit Shivdasani says rather than being a thing of science fiction, brain-machine interfaces could become commonplace within 20 years as developments in the field continue to accelerate.

“We have computers all around us. They are in our pockets and travelling everywhere we go, but to think of integrating that directly with the brain to use the technology… it’s pretty amazing,” A/Prof. Shivdasani said on the UNSW ‘Engineering the Future of Biomedical Engineering’ podcast episode.

Mohit Shivdasani

Associate Professor Mohit Shivdasani. Photo: UNSW

“We have seen evidence of brain-computer interfaces since 2006 at Brown University when they implanted electrodes in the motor cortex of two paralysed individuals, the part of the brain responsible for encoding thoughts and actions of movement.

“They showed that one particular person was able to control a robotic arm just by thinking about it, while another person was able to move a cursor on a computer screen and read his email.

“There is no commercial brain-machine interface that a person can use outside of a laboratory setting, but we’re very close. As technology moves forward, chips get better and smarter, they will be incorporated into medical devices.

“So we're not far off from seeing someone walking around with a brain-machine interface outside of a lab.”

Prof. Shivdasani’s own work focuses on improving bionic eyes for vision restoration in blind humans as well as developing other devices for chronic pain and inflammatory bowel disease.

And he knows that widespread implementation of brain-machine interfaces could offer dramatic benefits for people with a range of issues that currently affect their quality of life.

“There are situations where the brain can send signals, but those signals can't get to limbs for the person to be able to then walk for themselves. So what a brain-machine interface would do is read those thoughts and convert those thoughts to an action,” he said.

“So either to power an exoskeleton or let a patient drive their own wheelchair, for example.”

Importantly though, we also need to be aware of what patients want to be able to do with their devices.

“I've had a lot of chats with blind patients. When you ask them what they want from a bionic eye they'll say: ‘I want to see my family’.

“But I remember one conversation with a lady, and she said: ‘I would love to be able to see the Target sign again, because when I go into the shopping centre, I want to be able to find Target really easily’.

“As an engineer, I would never have thought about that, but that could be so important.”

Joining A/Prof. Shivdasani on the ‘Engineering the Future’ podcast was Claire Bridges, a PhD candidate at UNSW who is conducting research on blood vessels to help prevent and treat cardiovascular disease in people with diabetes.

She says future developments in biomedical engineering related to connected health are hugely important.

“One of the most beneficial ways we'll see some of that come into play over the next 20 years is moving into this idea of connected health,” she said.

“With COVID we saw a big expansion in the need for and provision of telehealth, which has been incredibly beneficial. To further expand that and improve on our ability to provide health care to people who might not be able to see a clinician or undergo a test in person, we can use wearable devices. 

“Devices like your smartwatch or ring, or even implantable devices like blood glucose monitors or other biometric sensors can change the way clinicians and patients communicate and work together.

Claire Bridges

Claire Bridges, a PhD candidate at UNSW Sydney. Photo: Claire Bridges

“Devices like these can collect huge amounts of data as they continuously monitor the person wearing them. The use of AI could be a big help with this, analysing these big data sets to identify relevant health information and sending it to a patient’s treating clinicians. That provides a much better opportunity to intervene in near-real time when people are acutely unwell, or to pick up on biological indicators of someone’s risk factors or that something could progress or get worse with time.

“I think we'll continue to be able to expand on that as our technology improves. We'll be able to expand from just this sort of one-parameter monitoring to measuring a lot of different parameters.

“Whether it's inflammatory markers in the blood or hormone secretion or neurotransmitter issues, we could catch things earlier and get that early diagnosis so that we can have more effective preventative health.

“On average, Australians spend about 11 years of their life in poor health but with the advances we’re seeing in our biomedical technology, both in terms of physical, actual hands-on implanted treatment or drug delivery or other developing technology, we have a lot of opportunity to improve things.”

Listen to other episodes from UNSW’s Engineering the Future podcast.