The brain-to-computer (BTC) interface is especially exciting because of its potential to restore human sensory capabilities. A successful brain-to-computer interface bypasses or replaces natural sensory organs with electronic devices connected directly to the brain. And, yes, that’s what they did to an entire species in The Matrix. Our focus is not on harvesting energy from living beings, as in the film, but on helping humans regain sensation from damaged or missing sensory organs. We’ve looked at BTC interfaces before, primarily in motor cortex implants designed to help with movement. We also wrote about Second Sight Medical Products’ Orlon “visual cortex prosthesis” that sends images captured by eyeglasses to an array of electrodes implanted in the brain.

Researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN) recently published a report in Science that described their success bypassing the retina-to-brain connection with two monkeys that had normal vision. Xing Chen from the NIN Department of Vision and Cognition led a the team that implanted a matrix of 1,024 low-power electrodes directly on the monkeys’ primary visual cortex. The researchers sent current to patterns of electrodes to trigger phosphenes (the perception of light where there is no light). The team stimulated patterns that resembled simple shapes, motions, or letters. The sighted monkeys successfully recognized the phosphene patterns.

According to the NIN team, previous studies demonstrated that electrode stimulation on the brain surface could be recognized as light. The earlier studies required high energy current, however, which limited the number of electrodes that could be used safely. As a result, the limited number of electrodes created low visual resolution. The NIN team’s lower current level allowed them to employ hundreds of electrodes to create patterns with much higher resolution. The sighted monkeys in the trial “immediately recognized” the rudimentary shapes, according to the report.

The NIN study is early-stage research that indicates the potential for implanted electrodes to restore vision to blind persons.