Brain-Machine Interfaces

Yesterday I went to a conference at Mayo Clinic put on for patients with hearing disabilities.  It was a very interesting conference, filled mostly with elderly folks with hearing aids, cochlear implants, walkers, and jaunty canes.  At the start of the first speech there was a little chorus of squealing hearing aids while people adjusted their machinery, and one woman toward the front of the group kept muttering loudly to a companion until she said loudly enough to interrupt the speaker, “Well now you have it too loud! Turn it down!”  The speaker just laughed and greeted the woman: “Hi Wanda, good to have you here again.” When Wanda’s hearing aid was taken care of, he continued.

The main speaker was Dr. Hubert Lim from the University of Minnesota, who spoke about tinnitus (ringing, buzzing, etc, in the ears).  I have seen some correlation of tinnitus to fibromyalgia and have intermittent tinnitus myself.  My dad, who also has chronic pain issues, has fairly severe tinnitus, as well as hearing loss.  Mostly, hearing loss and tinnitus are considered side effects of fibromyalgia, which worsens with onset of fibromyalgia, probably because of the neural sensitization which comes with fibromaylga.  I’m not sure if onset of hearing loss/tinnitus can be connected with fibromyalgia, however.

As Dr. Lim spoke about the different potential treatment methods for tinnitus they are currently working on in the lab, it was hard not to think that these may be methods for treating chronic pain.  He did mention that pain is one of the things they were looking at with these treatments.  The most promising methods have to do with inserting mechanical bits in the brain, like cochlear implants, essentially neural prosthetic or brain-machine interfaces.  This of course raises a lot of questions, not just about the practicality and safety of these types of treatments, but also about how this is the beginning of machine-human hybrids – I kept seeing Robocop.  But that’s going overboard in a lot of ways.  As the second speaker pointed out, if there is a way to make your quality of life better, is there any real reason not to take it?

I have read an article about deep brain stimulation as a possible treatment for fibromyalgia, and most of the parts of the brain that were involved with tinnitus are also related to bits of brain that are affected by long term chronic pain.  This raises the question in my head – would the treatments that help with tinnitus (if they come up with a definitive treatment) also help with chronic pain/fibromyalgia?  Can the solution to chronic pain lie in a brain-machine interface?  Could Robocop be the answer to everything?

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