Synthetic Brains in Medicine
The Development of the Robo Rat
I recently spoke to Professor Matti Mintz of Tel Aviv University on my radio show, the Goldstein on Gelt, which is broadcast every Monday night, about the development of modern technology, and his latest invention - the synthetic brain.
To watch a video of the interview, scroll further down this page.
Here is a transcript of our interview:
Doug Goldstein: The Robo-Rat is a hybrid of a biological and a synthetic rat. Can you tell us about that?
Matti Mintz: I’m very happy that you use the term "hybrid", rather than "cyber-rat" or something like that. A cyber-rat is kind of a public term, but the academy would rather use the term “hybrid”. The question is whether we can help a person that has sustained damage to one part of the brain to recover his lost function caused by the damage. There are many examples where we actually used electrodes or informatics technology to help some of these people. Known examples are Parkinson patients, where you stimulate the subthalamic area of the brain and you see that although Parkinson’s is not cured the symptoms are taken care of.
Some electrodes are for stimulating the brain, and others are for recording from the brain. Through the history of neuroscience, we actually gained a lot of control over recording from the brain and stimulating the brain. The next idea we had together with some other associates was of connecting the recording electrodes to the stimulating electrodes by some smart synthetic device. At the beginning of the program, you record from a place in the brain, you analyze this information, and you provide stimulation back to the brain trying to correct something.
Our idea was that we can actually correct some of the functioning that has been lost due to damage to the brain. So just imagine that there is a very tiny place in the brain that was damaged because of aging, lack of blood supply, an accident or a toxin. We record the inputs to this tiny place in the brain, we analyze the information in the synthetic device, a cheaper program, and we try to analyze this information in a very similar way to the way it was in the original place in the brain. After analyzing this information, we return the analyzed information, the decision back to the brain. It’s a kind of a side lop that is correcting the function that was lost because of the small damage with the brain. This is basically the idea.
I’m reading partly the information that reflects the decision to move the finger. We know already for many years how to read this kind of information. This is not new. We know how to record from our sympathetic reflex to record the sensory information that is coming and we know has to do with some movement, and we know how to do it already for many decades.
Douglas Goldstein: This is not the same as understanding what someone is thinking and the science fiction motive of reading someone’s mind.
Matti Mintz: Absolutely. I stressed that we are replacing very tiny place in the brain. Let’s say you have a long sequence of movements that you decided to make and within the sequence, we are providing a replacement for one of these movements. This is far away still from knowing what you think, but in the sequence of behaviors that you want to execute now because of decision to move around. One of these movements was impossible because there was damage in the brain and we are giving you the option to execute this movement within a longer sequence of movements.
Douglas Goldstein: Are there any applications outside the laboratory yet, or are we still waiting for that?
Matti Mintz: Part of the applications are for within the hospitals. People are now implanted with electrodes to correct motor movements in order to help them recover from obsessive compulsive diseases. There are attempts to recover from depression. There are recordings from the brain to discover sites of epileptic fits in the brain, etcetera. This kind of application that we are speaking about is a smart device between the recording and stimulation of the brain. We are not aware that such a device is yet in clinical use. But we think that some applications of this kind of device that will be there in future years can already be introduced as a clinic tool. Which parts of the brain can be recovered by this technique is still a question. Another group, for example, working in California is trying to replace a much bigger part of the brain compared to what we are doing. They tried to replace the hippocampus, which is important for the special orientation of the memory, and they’re making a lot of progress. I believe that in the future you’ll be able to replace at least some small parts of the brain.
Douglas Goldstein: What’s the focus of your lab right now?
Matti Mintz: We are now trying to expand our expertise and instead of working on one single discrete motor movement, we want to actually recover a sequence of movements. Let’s say you want to move your hand, and after moving your hand toward the table, you want now to grasp a glass. So here, it’s not only one movement that’s involved but rather a sequence.
Now the question is whether we can actually benefit from the techniques that we master during this project to replace longer sequences of movement. This is very challenging, and much more technology is needed. This kind of project involves many partners that build electrodes, simulations, and chips integrated to the whole technology that together analyzes signal processing. So we are trying now to build this group again and convince my partners that we can actually now approach much more difficult tasks that will involve slightly bigger areas of the brain, still not the whole cerebellum, but bigger parts of the brain.
Douglas Goldstein: You’re doing it more from a study point of view, but are there companies that are involved today that perhaps in the future will become common name because everyone’s going to say, “I had my brain fixed by such and such a company?”
Matti Mintz: First of all, the budget for this study came from Israel, from myself and from a complexity science project funding institution, but mainly from the European community. They require cooperation from us, and they are funding studies that are of a large scale in a sense that the principal investigators are corporate. One of the corporate partners was in fact a company in Austria that was building for us the integration system for all of the technologies. Through this experience, they started to develop more and more sophisticated equipment, so this is already a proven impact on Europe’s economy or one company.
When we’re developing this complex integrated technology, there are many small parts of this technology that are already patterned bios. For example one of my students came to the idea that if you want to recover function in the brain, we need to implant the electrode that will be functional in the brain for many years. But when electrodes are inserted into the brain, they damage the brain and they trigger a response of the immune system, which encapsulated the electrode and prevented it from functioning properly. So you need to find a way to antagonize the effect of the immune system, and this is the pattern that my university accepted and the companies will be interested in this kind of improvement in the electrodes. Many companies, including in the States, are now producing these electrodes for brain recording and stimulation. This is definitely something that is enhancing the economic market in Israel definitely. We expect that more of this kind of improvements will come when we progress with this project.
Douglas Goldstein: Could you tell people how they could follow the work that you’re doing?
Matti Mintz: My website is now under reconstruction, so this is kind of closed, but people can come to the website of our project, called ReNaChip, www.renachip.org. They will find all our partners. Our partners are coming from Tel-Aviv University, School of Engineering, England, Austria, Italy, Rome, Barcelona and Lund, Sweden. All of these partners are mentioned there.