Your Thoughts Could Activate a Tiny Robot Inside Your Own Brain

The humble cockroach was used in an experiment where a human controlled a nanobot implanted in its body simply by using thought. SuperStock/Getty Images

If you're a fan of vintage Sci-Fi movies, you may have seen the 1966 thriller “Fantastic Voyage,” in which a submarine and its crew shrink down to microscopic size, so they can be injected into the bloodstream of a scientist to fix a blood clot in his brain. A half-century later, that premise still seems a bit far-fetched, because we've yet to develop a process for miniaturizing objects, let alone people.

But we probably won't need to shrink ourselves, since scientists have developed nanobots—tiny microscopic robots fashioned from DNA—that someday may be able to roam around inside our bodies to perform medical procedures from the inside.

Humanity took a step forward into that future recently, when Israeli scientists revealed that they've developed a new type of brain-machine interface, which for the first time has allowed a human operator to control a nanobot implanted inside the body of a living creature (in this case a cockroach), simply by using his thoughts.

In an article in the scientific Journal PLOS ONE, they describe the experiments, which involved developing and training a computer algorithm to recognize the brainwave patterns generated by a person performing mental arithmetic. The person wore a device called an EEG cap to transmit brainwaves to the computer software. The EEG cap was connected to an electromagnetic coil, and cockroaches were injected with nanorobots and placed inside the coil.

By thinking about math, the human operator could cause a simple gate inside the nanorobots to open and release a fluorescent-tinted drug inside the cockroaches.

But it's people, not insects, who stand to benefit from drug-transmitting nanobots. The scientists envision that the technology will be used someday to treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. Instead of giving someone a pill to swallow, psychiatrists could inject them with nanobots that were trained to respond to abnormalities in the person's own brainwave activity.  

A tiny wearable device (still in development) would detect EEG activity. So, for instance, the bots would administer a dose of Ritalin if the device determined someone with ADHD was losing concentration. Sachar Arnon, one of the study's co-authors, explained to New Scientist that the technology "could track brain states that underlie ADHD or schizophrenia...It could be modified to suit your needs."

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