Published: 10:28, February 21, 2024 | Updated: 10:32, February 21, 2024
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Brain-computer interface tech set to surge in China
By Zheng Yiran

A visitor experiences the brain-computer interface technology from Tianjin University at the seventh World Intelligence Congress in Tianjin. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The brain-computer interface in China is expected to develop rapidly, thanks to policy support, technological advancement and surging demand.

With the ability to regulate brain functioning through stimulation, the interface is a frontier technology that could assist in rehabilitation of patients with brain diseases and injuries, and even expand the human brain's processing capability in the future.

At Ruijin Hospital affiliated with the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, surgery using a brain pacemaker with brain-computer interface function and multitarget combined stimulation to treat depression was successfully completed in 2020, the first of its kind in the world. The hospital recently spoke about the patient's successful recovery.

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The patient was 31-year-old Wu Xiaotian, who had been suffering from depression for 16 years. Depression often left his brain blank, and he was unable to express even simple greetings such as a "hello". At its worst, it left him lying motionless in bed all day.

The external world seemed like a vacuum to him. "It had nothing to do with me," he recalled.

Today, Wu is a happy man. Now there is a neural regulatory device, known as a brain pacemaker, buried in his right chest cavity. It is connected to two electrodes, extending from the device in front of the chest to behind the ear, and then from the posterior brain to the anterior side of the brain, passing through the nerve nuclei at the front end of the brain. Electric stimulation of these nerves makes depressive symptoms disappear.

He can crack jokes and talk to strangers without any hesitation. Fond of music, he starts humming when he is at a place that makes him happy.

On Jan 28, the Elon Musk-backed neurotechnology company Neuralink announced that it had carried out its first brain chip implant.

Other companies are developing similar interfaces to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities by enabling them to control prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs or other assistive devices directly with their thoughts. Some companies are working to use the technology to restore lost sensory or motor functions in individuals who have experienced paralysis, limb loss or the treatment of neurological conditions; and as a means of communication for individuals with conditions that limit their ability to speak or write.

In fact, China has been exploring the technology for many years. Not only has it made breakthroughs in basic research, but it also has implemented practical applications in fields such as healthcare, education and entertainment.

The country's emphasis on brain-computer interface technology is evident. As early as 2016, it announced the launch of the China Brain Project, or Brain Science and Brain-Like Intelligence Technology, where the interface played a key role, displaying enormous growth potential.

"Currently, China's brain-computer interface industrial chain is not perfect, with some key features such as chips being the weak links. With policy support and technology advancement, the market scale of China's brain-computer interface segment is estimated to grow rapidly, and form a market worth 100 billion yuan ($13.9 billion)," said Zhang Yue, chairman of AoYo International Media Beijing Co Ltd.

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Hong Yong, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation's e-commerce research institute, said: "China's brain-computer interface development is a positive trend and has great growth potential. Although we are currently dependent on core technologies from overseas, the situation encourages domestic companies to enhance R&D capabilities, to explore core technologies on our own.

"In the future, propelled by policy, capital and market demand, the brain-computer interface industry is expected to achieve the autonomy of key technologies and make commercial progress in multiple application scenarios such as healthcare, rehabilitation training, education and entertainment, and intelligent control."

To boost the development of the sector, Wang Peng, an associate research fellow at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, suggested that China should enhance independent R&D and innovation, improve relevant laws and regulations, promote the coordinated development of the industry, and increase market acceptance.