What is Neurotechnology? The Emerging Field That's Changing Minds

“There is a misconception about how advanced this field is. We are still very much in the early stages of building technologies and also of our understanding of the brain.”

Lee Fisher, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Pittsburgh

In a world that seems to leap into the future with each technological advancement, neurotechnology emerges as a frontier science, reshaping our understanding of the most complex entity known to us—the human brain.

We’re already entwined with neurotechnology in ways that once seemed the exclusive domain of science fiction. From direct interfaces like brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that enable individuals to control prosthetic limbs or communicate without physical movement, neurotechnology is steadily blurring the lines between the brain’s organic processes and digital augmentation.

To understand the applications of neurotechnology, it’s first necessary to grasp precisely what it entails: “It’s devices that we use to either stimulate or record from the nervous system,” explains Dr. Lee Fisher, associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. “Usually, it is to try and build a technology that allows us to improve somebody’s ability to interact with the world with assistive or rehabilitative technologies. For example, current devices include deep brain stimulators for managing Parkinson’s disease symptoms, vagus nerve stimulators for treating epilepsy, and cochlear implants to aid those with hearing impairments.”

One of the most groundbreaking neurotechnology advancements recently making headlines involves the development of a BCI that allows individuals to translate thoughts directly into text with unprecedented accuracy. This technology, which utilizes machine learning algorithms and sophisticated sensors, is aimed principally at helping those who have lost the ability to speak or move due to neurological conditions. In these studies, participants could communicate thoughts at speeds nearly half that of a typical conversation with up to 75 percent accuracy. This innovation opens up new possibilities for augmenting human communication and represents a significant leap forward in assistive neurotechnologies.

However, there is still much work and research to be done, explains Dr. Fisher: “We are very much still trying to understand what neurons in the brain are doing when somebody is attempting to move their limbs or thinking a thought. There is a lot still to be learned here and a lot of technological development that must happen before we get to the point where we can do something like fully restore somebody’s ability to move around after a spinal cord injury.”

Meet The Expert: Lee Fisher, PhD

Lee Fisher

Dr. Lee Fisher is an associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed his doctoral studies in biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, focusing on the use of multi-contact stimulating electrodes to restore standing function after spinal cord injury.

Dr. Fisher’s research interests center around developing neuroprostheses to restore sensory and motor function following neural damage or disease. Additionally, he explores the role of somatosensation in maintaining balance control during standing and walking. His work has contributed to neuroprosthetic advancements, somatosensory function, spinal cord injury, amputation, and balance control. He has published extensively in the field, with representative publications including research on microstimulation of the lumbar dorsal root ganglia, chronic recruitment of primary afferent neurons, and optimizing selective stimulation parameters for multi-contact electrodes.

Neurotechnology As An Interdisciplinary Field

Neurotechnology is interdisciplinary, meaning there isn’t just one degree or career path to get started in a career in this field. “There is a lot of engineering, and even within engineering, it includes bioengineering or biomedical engineering and a sub-discipline called ‘neural engineering,’ but there’s also electrical engineering involved mechanical engineering,” explains Dr. Fisher. “There’s a heavy neuroscience component since we need to understand what these structures would normally do to interact with them and hopefully help restore function. We also work very closely with various disciplines in the clinical setting, including physicians and psychiatrists who are treating people with the conditions we’re focused on. We interact with neurosurgery and neurology, as well as occupational therapy and physical therapy. It all depends on the project.”

This is not only an exciting field for technological advancements, but it also has the potential to significantly impact and improve the lives of individuals with neurological conditions or injuries. As this field continues to grow and evolve, professional collaboration will be crucial in pushing boundaries and finding new ways to enhance human cognition and function. “We work on big teams. There’s always a learning curve because everybody speaks a little bit of a different language, but understanding all these different areas is really interesting and a significant part of what we do,” says Dr. Fisher.

Current Applications for Neurotechnology

While there is still much to be discovered and developed in the field of neurotechnology, a variety of applications are currently in use. “Our lab spans from non-invasive or minimally invasive technologies, where we do things like we use transcranial magnetic stimulation to stimulate the brain without having to perform a surgery up through projects where we implant devices directly into the brain,” says Dr. Fisher.

“In the less invasive methods, we are probably stimulating tens of thousands of neurons simultaneously. It would be more like the equivalent of a microphone in the middle of a football stadium. On the highly invasive side, we’re putting tiny electrodes into the brain, and we might be stimulating only a few neurons or recording directly from individual neurons in the brain.”

As previously mentioned, there are several technologies which are currently commercially available. “There are devices that are very commonly clinically deployed at this point. Examples include cochlear prosthetics for people with hearing loss and deep brain stimulation for people with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders,” says Dr. Fisher. “There is also a common procedure called spinal cord stimulation for pain. Advanced neural prosthetics studies are already being used in up to 50,000 people annually to treat pain. There is also transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, which are patches you put on your skin which anyone at a pharmacy can purchase.”

Personalized Medicine and Neurotechnology

One of the most exciting developments in neurotechnology is the potential for personalized medicine. With personalized medicine, treatments are tailored to an individual’s specific needs and abilities, allowing for more effective and efficient treatments and the potential for improved outcomes: “Many of the injuries we focus on have a wide spectrum within that particular injury. For example, a spinal cord injury or stroke has a really wide span of what the injury actually looks like and also what the functional consequences of that injury are,” says Dr. Fisher. “When we think about building neurotechnologies, it is really important for us to understand, as best we can, what the actual specific injury is for that person and develop technologies that can be personalized to each medical need. You wouldn’t want to give every person with a stroke the same kind of neurotechnology. One might have physical impairments, while another might have speech concerns. You wouldn’t target the same spots in the brain.”

He continues, “Similarly for people with spinal cord injury, people span the range from a very minor injury, and they’re more or less completely functional, all the way up to very high level complete spinal cord injuries that prevent the ability to move arms and legs. In the middle, there are people with incomplete injuries where they might have some weakness or impairment and sensory loss but still have the ability to move their limbs. Understanding each person and their injury level is really important.”

To accomplish this, they utilize imaging tools such as functional MRIs to determine where each patient is. “We look to see what spared activity there is. That gives us a sense of the impairment level and what kinds of technologies we should use to try and address that impairment. It can also determine what the likelihood is that the treatment will work. Not every technology will work for a person to help improve their function, so it is important to ensure we focus on the patient first and do our best to personalize treatment.”

AI and Neurotechnology

Another area of growth and development in neurotechnology is the integration of artificial intelligence (AI). AI allows for greater precision and accuracy in diagnosis, treatment planning, and even predicting outcomes. “We just started to scratch the surface of using AI for any of the things that we do. It’s becoming more common for the kinds of technologies that we are developing,” says Dr. Fisher. “The biggest challenge is that you need a lot of data and, especially when you have small numbers of participants in many of these studies, the amount of data is really limited.”

One area where AI is being implemented is with the concept of omniscient neurotechnology, which taps into the realm of near-future possibilities. This technology interacts with and deeply understands every nuance of the human brain. It involves creating an advanced system that could predict and address neurological issues before they manifest visibly.

Such technology would embody the ultimate goal of personalized medicine, where interventions are not just reactive but preemptively designed based on an individual’s unique neurological fingerprint. The device could interpret the early, subtle signals of an impending stroke or the onset of neurodegenerative disease, enabling preemptive treatment to avert or mitigate the condition entirely. This groundbreaking approach could revolutionize how we treat, anticipate, and prevent neurological disorders, making the vision of truly personalized and anticipatory medicine a reality.

Ethical Considerations

As with any emerging technology, ethical considerations must be considered, and neurotechnology is no exception. “We have all the standard ethical considerations you would have with human research subjects and medical devices, but on top of that, we are recording potentially sensitive information and signals. We don’t think the recorded signals are likely to have potentially negative implications for somebody, but we’re at the early stages of interpreting these signals, and maybe sometime down the road, somebody could learn to do something with them that might have negative consequences,” says Dr. Fisher. “We take neuroethics very seriously. There are a lot of layers of monitoring and regulatory approvals that go into these studies.”

He adds, “In our lab, we run a monthly neuroethics discussion series, where we keep these things at the top of our minds and discuss things like ethics of consent. Sometimes, we work with populations that may have impaired cognitive abilities. Hence, we need to think through the consent process, or we have people who may be in a lot of pain and are looking for any solution they can find to that pain, so we need to make sure you’re not coercing people to participate in these studies.”

Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson Writer

With her passion for uncovering the latest innovations and trends, Kimmy Gustafson has provided valuable insights and has interviewed experts to provide readers with the latest information in the rapidly evolving field of medical technology since 2019. Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.