IEET > Contributors > Christopher Harris > HealthLongevity > Implants
Program Yourself
Christopher Harris   Jan 12, 2008  

“Most people don’t realize how common brain implants have become in the last couple of years. Every month thousands of patients all over the world have electronics surgically implanted into their heads to treat problems with hearing, movement and pain, and more recently with epilepsy, vision, paralysis, depresssion, compulsive behaviour and loss of consciousness (Perlmutter & Mink, 2006; Lebedev & Licolelis, 2006; Kringelbach et al, 2007). The iPlant is just another implant, aimed at new regions in the brain.”

Ike was addressing the press conference. Dark shirt, two deep blue wires runinng down the back of his head towards a console strapped to his chest. Two days ago he snapped Lucy’s right index finger in three places when she tried to disconnect his dopaminergic nuclei. She’s having problems not blaming him.

“It’s eight implants really; each controlling a group of cells that supply the brain with dopamine or serotonin (the VTA, SNc, dorsal- and medial raphe nuclei, bilaterally). Electrical activity in these cells is at the core of our mental lives. Dopamine is the goal of behavior and in large quantities it drives activity and growth in brain tissue. When a thought grabs you so you can’t think of anything else it’s because the neurons that make up that thought are being fed more than enough dopamine to keep on firing and connect to other neurons. When you’re comparing two options, unable to decide, it’s because they drum up the same amount of dopamine. Dopamine is motivation, its fluctuations describe where you direct your attention, what’s important to you and what you remember (Cools & Robbins, 2004; Schultz, 2007). This is a gross oversimplification but it works – our implants control the flow of dopamine in the brain.”

What began as a problem of mapping and reducing noise in the high power spectra of Ike’s dopaminergic implants quickly became a problem of security, of preventing over-use. We knew we would have to ‘tune’ the implants, find the combination of electrodes and currents with the steadiest and most selective effect, with nothing but Ike’s own words to guide us, but we didn’t expect him to lie, and his eyes didn’t reveal a thing. Then Lucy noticed his white knuckles, moved to disconnect and it took me and two of the software engineers to hold him down.

“The point is, there’s no groundbreaking science here. This could have been done many years ago, probably was done in military labs somewhere, in Russia, the US or China, anywhere really; the regions in the brain where motivation and learning can be generated electrically were mapped in animals and humans more than half a century ago (Olds & Milner, 1954; Heath, 1963) and people immediately started thinking about realistic forms of mind control (Delgado, 1971). Only a few years ago the US army developed implants that allow them to remote control rats via normal laptops, ‘for search-and-rescue missions’ (Talwar et al, 2002).”

Ike could not have full access to the implants, so much was clear. Maybe it’s a general rule that no one can control their own dopamine but in his case the problem had been exasperated – there was no way of knowing for sure how far he’d go to repeat that overflow. The security we put in place meant the computers had to be unlocked and operated from three points simultaneously: two in opposite corners of the lab, one in the library on the other side of campus. Whosever implants were being programmed could still direct the work, but all uploading of compiled programs had to be cleared and confirmed by the others.

“The first programs we developed for the iPlant were exercise programs, originally for treating obesity. Take running: the soles of these trainers here contain sensors that punch out a bolt of dopamine with each step. Nothing like orgasm, but enough to make you want it like those few lucky people who really enjoy running want it, with a strict time limit of course. Implant-driven exercise programs have been available for rats for decades (Burgess et al, 1991; Gardner et al, 1991), now we’ve got them too. Learning programs work on a similar principle, dopamine for correct answers. The current version of the iPlant has about six thousand hours of training in French, German, Mandarin, Japanese and maths, but you can expect a lot more with each update. There are a few purely clinical programs as well, like DeTox and DePhobe. Dopamine-driven software lets you want what you want to want.”

The rest of that day would have been a lot easier if he’d been genuinely affected by Lucy’s finger, but the way he saw it him and the electrode arrays had malfunctioned, like an allergic reaction, not his fault. And who knows, who knows what it feels like to have pure dopamine filling up your frontal lobes with nothing to hold it back but… what? Only Ike. Rats given full access to their own dopamine self-stimulate until they collapse from starvation or lack of sleep.

“All eight implants also regulate baseline or so called ‘tonic’ electrical activity in their target cells. For dopamine we call this program Focus. People perform best when their dopamine concentrations are at an optimum level for the task at hand and most of us experience daily problems maintaining sufficient dopamine levels; maintaining concentration. Focus works similarly to the stimulants children are prescribed for ADHD, but it’s cleaner and more flexible and can be turned off, which means fewer side effects. The analogous program for serotonin we call AntiDep because it works like SSRI antidepressants. If you’re depressed or chronically anxious, chances are you were born with an underdeveloped serotonin system or its growth was stunted by stress (Jans et al, 2007). Like antidepressants, AntiDep prevents some of the more vicious long-term effects of not having enough serotonin, like overproduction of stress hormones, inhibited growth in the hippocampus, and, at least for some people, social isolation and despair (Dranovsky & Hen, 2006).”

I met Ike at UCL in 2008. In med school he’d done enough ecstasy to mentally cripple a rhesus monkey, but the damage MDMA does to humans is still not known. Ike wanted me to find out: to inject him with radioactive serotonin transporter ligands and PET scan his brain, then repeat the test yearly to check for regeneration. It didn’t look good. The serotonergic branches perfusing his forebrain were down to 60% of normal thickness, and a mesh of regrowth had formed a fine, essentially useless cloud of axons around the serotonergic cell bodies back in the brainstem. This was ecstasy damage, same as in monkeys (Hatzidimitriou et al, 1999), and if the ligand had been approved for use in humans we might have been able to publish the scans. How much of the damage had been there before the pills and the powders – as the serotonergic vulnerability that surfaces as anxiety and compulsions – was not something we could know, and it didn’t matter to Ike. I decided to introduce him to the team and to our research.

“All changes to your iPlant have to be uploaded and tuned here at our facilities using special surgical equipment: this means that no government satellites can turn you into mindless drones; no one can hack your brain and make you desperate to give them your money. No, the main challenge to the iPlant are those segments of society that will react to it with fear and try to demonize it. These people are often the ones who would benefit the least from an iPlant: they don’t suffer the neverending frustrations of a short attention span, excessive fatigue, addiction, depression or intense social anxiety; they are the ones whose dopaminergic and serotonergic cell groups are working fine, and they’ll say that you using an implant to reach your optimum is somehow wrong, as if you were cheating in some petty game. No, this is a 21st century class struggle – those born rich in dopamine and serotonin protecting their ‘hard earned’ privileges.”


We pumped all the money generated by the iPlant into the development of new electronics and signal processing software for iPlant 2, a wireless comb of high-density electrode arrays for the corpus callosum and frontal lobes. Like the original BrainGate it was to enable direct neural control of a computer (Hochberg et al, 2006), but at a much much higher bandwidth than the mouse-and-keyboard interface. After five years we were at a stage where Meg could volunteer.

Some of us had thought she’d break the moment she connected. That her flow would rupture, her synchrony leaking out like in that book where a brain locked up in a lab aquarium gets hold of the wire of a security camera and almost manages to ‘escape’ (Jersild, 1988). The idea that the mind is ethereal is old, extremely old, but I don’t think she doubted the hold of the body for a second, not really, I don’t think she could.

The look on her face, it was the same smile Ike had had when he came back from his first three hours of running. She described the sensation as ‘inward touch’, as something like a blind person seeing shapes by touching and stroking. The link was largely one–way, brain to computer, the team relying on screens to structure her output, but from the start she had wanted ‘primers’ – faint feedback to the electrodes involved in any successfully executed command. It was no more than two hours before she turned the screens off and adjusted the music in the lab using nothing but the direct link, flipping between tracks with a wide smile, holding back the laughter.

She could write, of course, but we never understood how she learned to read, not with the screens off. It seemed impossible. Her control of the computers were at the coding-level of mouse and keyboard and there was no way of re-routing the screen-output to the implant. We thought maybe she’d found a way to locate text and somehow ‘check’ each letter or object against output of her own, using some difference in the primer-feedback for correct and incorrect trials to determine a letter sequence. But the software for that kind of checking, however simple, wasn’t installed. She said it was a matter of ‘jumping’, said it felt like skipping stone. She’d stopped smiling.

She wasn’t there in the morning. Her body I mean, she wasn’t there at all. We’d all stayed at the compound overnight, in case of emergency, sleeping right there along the walls. She sat by the desk with the software-people for hours asking questions, more about computer science it seemed then about the implant or the decoding software. Then she went to sit on the operating table, drawing beautiful flowers in photoshop, with edges that looked smooth and soft and razor–sharp at once, and had layers of coloured shadows hanging under them. Why didn’t I make her tell me more about it? She explained ‘jumping’ in some detail, like it was a matter of getting through a series of commands so quickly the computer had to catch up, which gave you a half–second glimpse of your own serial trace at deeper levels of coding. Then you took that output and repeated it with minor changes and eventually you learned how to get behind the surface of programs. She said the internet was beautiful.

She wrote her parents a 32 page letter, all hand, which they won’t let us read. Her dad quit his job and moved to France within a week. We still haven’t heard from her. I think it’ll take us between three and five months to assemble another implant. Ike and I flipped a coin and I’m next. I’ve agreed to keep the doors locked this time.


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Christopher Harris is interested in realistic modifications of brain function and what they tell us about the human condition. He aims to develop iPlants - monoamine regulating brain implants that could allow people to program their own behaviour and mood. He works in the electrophysiology lab at the University of Sussex ( Passaro et al, 2007 ), manages the iPlant research website and writes a blog.


Christopher Harris is a neuroscientist working on neural circuits and dopamine reward. He writes a blog and manages the iPlant website.

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