Monday, December 04, 2006

Brain computer interfaces: New hope for paralyzed individuals with mostly intact brain functions:

25-year-old Matthew Nagle changed the channels on his TV, adjusted the volume and read an e-mail. These feats may not sound impressive, but they earned him a spot on the cover of the July 13, 2006 issue of the journal Nature (and caused a media uproar) because Nagle is a quadriplegic, paralyzed in 2001 by a knife wound that severed his spinal cord. Thanks to a system called BrainGate, Nagle was able to manipulate the TV controls, as well as a prosthetic hand, using his thoughts alone.

This company called Braingate (developed by John Donoghue, head of the Brain Science Program at Brown University, through a company he co-founded: Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems) is piloting a device called Neural Interface System which consists of attaching tiny electrodes to parts of the motor strip in the brain which decodes the ensuing electrical activity into purported actions that the device wearer 'wants' to do. A dumbed down way of saying this would be that the device actually reads your thoughts.
What it is really doing is that the computer connected to the device decodes the 'motor intentions' of the individual. The electrical activity can then be used by the computer to move or align objects in the immediate periphery of the individual. Of course these objects will need to have some kind of a connection to the computer and the computer will need to go through several learning sessions to correlate certain patterns of neural electrical activity into planned goals on behalf of the individual.

"The system is designed to restore functionality for a limited, immobile group of severely motor-impaired individuals. It is expected that people using the BrainGate™ System will employ a personal computer as the gateway to a range of self-directed activities. These activities may extend beyond typical computer functions (e.g., communication) to include the control of objects in the environment such as a telephone, a television and lights."

For people living with paralysis, the technology has the potential to be life-changing.

A little more info on the implant:
The implant is a square silicon chip just four millimeters (about 1/6 of an inch) wide, studded with an array of 100 hair-thin electrodes. The chip sits on the surface of the motor cortex, while the electrodes delve midway into the two-millimeter-thick cortex to eavesdrop on neurons that normally signal muscles to move. A bundle of gold wires sends those signals out through a connector affixed to the top of the skull, and to an amplifier; they then travel by fiber-optic cable to a set of computers. During training sessions for BrainGate, the computer software learns to associate patterns of neural activity with the intent to move a hand in a particular direction; it can use those intentions to pilot a computer cursor or, if all goes as planned, a motorized wheelchair.

Think of a future where severely paralyzed people will be surrounded by intelligent robots that will feed them, clean them and cook for them exactly the way they wanted it - all through reading the thoughts of the individual.

2 comments:

Sunflower Optimism said...

Wow, amazing science. I almost went into bioengineering, 30 years ago. Wound up in metallurgical engineering after a summer working in an orthopedic lab doing research on EMF to stimulate bone growth. Working with blood, guts and puppies was not my thing. I was much happier in aerospace.

Thanks again for your visit the other day - much appreciated!

Sunil said...

Thanks, sunflower. Good to note that you enjoyed this blog. Waiting for more posts like the one on marriage...