Could an ARM brain chip end neurodegenerative diseases?

Imagine a world where paralysis is considered to be a short-term condition; where those suffering from Parkinson’s disease or other neurological conditions can be treated, and where people suffering nerve damage can feel the heat from a freshly made cup of tea, or the texture of the ground underneath their feet.

If the Centre for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) and ARM have their way, this world could be a reality in a decade’s time. Their partnership has led to the development of a unique “’brain-implantable’ system-on-a-chip (SoC) for bi-directional brain-computer interfaces (BBCI) aimed at solving neurodegenerative disorders.”

To date, CSNE has worked on projects connecting into the brain and nervous system but this venture represents the first time there has been any real attempt to work on the closed loop feedback system between the cortex of the brain and the spinal cord, Peter Ferguson, Director of Healthcare Technologies at ARM, explains over the phone from Seattle.

“They’re trying to read and understand the signals from the brain and understand in finite detail what’s going on and how it can be linked into the nervous system in this closed loop manner. That’s quite special.”

So why hasn’t this been tried before? As one would expect, implanting a chip into an individual’s brain brings with it a whole host of ethical and biological challenges.

“First, there’s the challenge of connecting electrical systems into the brain and nervous system without destroying the cells,” Ferguson outlines. “Then there’s the challenge of having the compute capacity to read the data, filter the signals digitally and process it all in a way that doesn’t overheat the electronics and cause them to impact on the brain itself.”

It’s that second challenge that made finding the right partner so fundamental to this entire project.

ARM is already a market leader, designing low powered chips which are then licensed and manufactured by other people to be used in 99% of mobile phones and smart devices. ARM’s credentials for this project were obvious however, the question remained: How can you migrate the ability to compute using mobile phones into something that can compute within your brain?

According to Ferguson, the answer appears to lie with ARM Cortex-M0 processor, a chip efficient enough to combine the low power ARM technology with a sensible frequency and voltage design whilst being small enough to enable the necessary level of embedded control within the brain.

Whilst the development of this ‘brain-implantable’ chip is still in its infancy of the 10-year timeline, technology and healthcare services have increasingly come together in an attempt to improve patient care.

“The increase in chronic conditions such as diabetes is putting a strain on health services around the world,” Ferguson explains. “However, we live in a world where people are so used to using their smart devices they’re starting to say ‘if it’s easy for me to do this [banking, shopping, checking in at the airport] then why is it so difficult to have mobile health services?’”

Ferguson makes it clear that this increasing shift towards digitising aspects of health care is no bad thing; with the emergence of smart devices and technologies such as patches that can be applied to the body to measure smells associated with cancer or listen to your chest to detect symptoms of asthma.

“There are patches appearing on the market that have machine-learning baked in that can act like a guardian angel. Why wait until you have an asthma attack happen when you can see the physiological signs showing you several hours early if an attack is likely to occur?”

Whilst the technology itself is undoubtedly exciting, the potential industry-wide benefits it could provide healthcare services with are just as ground breaking. Take a phone case that doubles as an ECG monitor, for example. The data it can provide is fascinating but, not only can it be used to keep an eye on your health, it could pick up any abnormalities and uncover an undiagnosed condition that could have caused complications in later life.

“Reading your ECG is invaluable and the more powerful the compute models included in the technology, the more these devices can move from being data collectors into knowledge collectors; comparing your signals with what normal is or what normal was for you yesterday or what normal is for your height and weight. The more meaning you can gain from the data and the greater the context for the data when you present it to clinicians, the better they’ll be able to work out what’s going on and what medication is most appropriate for your health.

“All these technologies are coming out and whether it’s wearables or smart patches or ultimately implantable devices in the brain, we’re on a very exciting trajectory that will hopefully bring self-care to more people around the world.”

The future of healthcare and technology is clearly so intertwined, enquiring what the future could hold seems so impossibly open-ended it feels almost stupid to ask.

“The potential for this technology is multi-folded,” says Karthik Ranjan, Director of Healthcare and Emerging Technologies at ARM, who is also on the call. “While CSNE is primarily focused on neurological conditions, we’re already seeing the potential for this technology to be used to control the world around us by translating feelings into actions.”

Feeling too hot or too cold and automatically adjusting the thermostat, for example.

There’s other opportunities too. Things like behaviour control is one that Ranjan singles out as having a great deal of potential. “Reducing things like alcoholism or tobacco and substance addictions by dampening the effect they have through accessing the neurons in our brain that are the receptors for them.”

ARM Holdings is based in Cambridge and with this thought in mind, Ranjan ends the conversation with an homage to Stephen Hawking.

“Although he uses a computer to communicate, he’s clearly still able to think. The opportunity is here however; the question is how can we convert the thoughts we have and the words we want to speak into a neurological signal that can be digitised and transferred to other human beings?”


« The CMO Files: Michelle Huff, Act-On Software


C-suite career advice: Hanna-Leana Taoubi, Lingvist »
Charlotte Trueman

Charlotte is Staff Writer at IDG Connect. She is particularly interested in the impact technology will have on the future of work and promoting gender diversity throughout the tech industry.

  • twt
  • twt
  • Mail


Do you think your smartphone is making you a workaholic?