The January issue of the Reader’s Digest features a most excellent article ‘Medical Breakthroughs 2005’.
One of the showcased products in the article is BrainGate Neural Interface System, from Cyberkinetics Inc.:
In June a young man who is completely paralyzed underwent surgery to implant a small sensor in his brain that allows him to write e-mail, play video games, change the channels on his TV and open the curtains — using only his thoughts.
Although FDA approval is still several years away, this is the beginning of “a new age of neurotechnology,” says John P. Donoghue, Ph.D., chair of the department of neuroscience at Brown University. For 20 years he and his lab colleagues studied monkeys to learn how we go from thought to action. Eventually they decoded how that works, and then Richard Normann, professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah, invented a sensor that detects neural activity in the brain. This led to development of the BrainGate Neural Interface System, to be used in a human clinical trial.
RD: How difficult is this surgery?
Donoghue: The surgeon makes a craniotomy that’s the diameter of a 50-cent piece. The sensor, which is the size of a baby aspirin with 100 tiny hair-like appendages, is implanted in the region that issues commands to the arms. The software tells the surgeon exactly where to go and the whole surgical procedure takes about two and a half hours. Afterward only a penny-sized connector to the computer can be seen from the outside.
How does the system work?
The patient directs his thoughts to move the cursor on his computer screen. The sensor in his brain picks up those hard-to-detect electrical signals and sends them through three computers that process them into signals just like those from a computer mouse. These processors, which currently sit on a cart and are not mobile, will eventually become wireless and small enough to fit inside the body.
So when he’s connected, the patient can just “think” the cursor from place to place on-screen like the rest of us use a mouse. What else can he do?
He can also connect to other devices through the computer, such as a TV set, the control that opens and closes the curtains, a powered wheelchair or even a mechanical hand. Eventually we could hook this up to the person’s actual hand.
But other researchers are working on simpler, noninvasive BCIs. Jonathan Wolpaw, a professor at the Wadsworth Center in New York, published a paper in December 2004 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that his noninvasive electroencephalogram, or EEG, cap could pick up brain signals at least as well as Cyberkinetics’ invasive technology.
Both patients and their doctors would prefer not to open the skull to implant a BCI, but it’s not yet clear whether a BCI sitting outside the head will be as good at picking up brain waves as an implanted device. Experts generally thought the answer was no until Wolpaw published his results.
UPDATE (2/28/05): More news…