Last year, futurist Elon Musk announced a new project: a medical research company called Neuralink is going to develop a new generation of brain implants, which among other things can help us in the coming AI apocalypse. But aside from evil robots, the devices must first confront a more nefarious enemy: lightning.
Doctors in Slovenia report that a 66-year-old woman with an existing brain implant experienced a close call with the device after lightning struck her apartment building. The strike destroyed the woman’s television and air conditioning, and managed to disable her brain implant. Fortunately, the woman and her device were not injured.
But in a report published this week in the Journal of Neurosurgery, the doctors say the situation could easily have been much worse, possibly by zapping her brain or destroying her implant. They advocate for more precautions, such as surge protectors, and for greater awareness of the risks of lightning strikes with such implants — or deep brain stimulation (DBS) devices.
“Going forward, DBS manufacturers’ safety recommendations should specifically mention the possibility of hazards from naturally generated electromagnetic interference, such as during lightning storms,” they conclude.
DBS devices, such as women’s, are increasingly being used to help treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, tremors, muscle spasms, epilepsy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The devices work by placing electrodes in specific areas of the brain to deliver electrical impulses that are thought to help regulate aberrant electrical signals there — though it’s still unclear exactly how this works. The electrical impulses from the devices are generated by a pacemaker-like pulse generator implanted in the chest or torso, connected by wiring and powered by a battery. Some pulse generator batteries, including female ones, can be connected to an antenna charging system that charges itself from a standard wall outlet.
Boom goes the DBS device
Fortunately, the woman was not charging her pulse generator or charging the charging system at the time of the thunderstorm, so none of her equipment was damaged. But the tremor in her neck — which effectively treated the brain implant — returned about an hour after the storm. When she checked her device, she realized it wasn’t on and went to a clinic, fearing that the shock had burned her device.
Doctors there found that the implant had simply turned off and had not been damaged by the electrical lightning. They speculated that a safety system in her device (Medtronic’s Activa RC neurostimulator) kicked in during the storm, detecting the electromagnetic disturbance and causing it to turn itself off. While this is a good fail-safe for the device, it can be devastating for patients who suddenly have debilitating symptoms that unexpectedly return when their implants are turned off.
The doctors urge users of DBS devices to always use surge protectors on the charging systems, to avoid charging during lightning storms, and to be aware of the risks of strong electrical magnetic interference, such as that from lightning, electrical substations and MRI units . They note a case where a patient with a DBS device to treat Parkinson’s disease suffered “severe, permanent neurological injury” after their DBS electrode warmed up during an MRI scan.
The warnings and cautionary tales will certainly have more power as these types of devices become even more common – and expand their purpose. For now, Musk expects Neuralink’s proof-of-concept devices to be similar to women’s, that is, devices that use electrical impulses to treat conditions such as depression and epilepsy. But his vision for the future is to create mesh-like interfaces — or neural laces — that connect human brains directly to computers. These will help us do things like download thoughts and, perhaps, defend ourselves against bad AI.
Journal of Neurosurgery2018. DOI: 10.3171/2017.12.JNS172258 (About DOIs).