Wireless Brain Implant Aims To Give Paralyzed Power Over Their Limbs

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Prosthetic limbs that users control with their minds aren’t yet widely available, but several have been shown to work. Soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made amputeeism a much more prevalent disability, and one with enough funding to drive innovative solutions.

Those who are paralyzed have remained more difficult to help because human nerves and muscles require more intricate forms of control than the simplified prosthetic devices.

But BrainGate, a program that pools research from several universities, is moving ever closer to giving paralyzed patients use of their limbs by using the same technology developed to drive computerized prosthetics to drive the paralyzed limbs.

braingateBrainGate is developing a system in which a patient’s mental signal to move an arm is recorded, filtered through a computer and sent as a command to an electric stimulation device that activates the patient’s muscles.

An implanted 16-channel sensor records the patient’s brain signals looking for those related to limb movement and sends it wirelessly to a computer. There, an algorithm designed to recognize motion-related signals translates the information into a command for an electrical stimulation device that prods the muscles used in the motion the patient envisioned. The stimulator can spur as many as 18 hand and arm muscles into action.

“The patient thinks ‘up and to the right,’ and we have a controller that actually figures out the correct muscle activations to move in that direction,” Robert Kirsch, a project collaborator, chair of biomedical engineering at Case Western and executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Functional Electrical Stimulation Center, told the MIT Technology Review.

The BrainGate researchers first tested their ability to record brain signals and convert them into simple commands for a computer cursor. They then succeeded at having paralyzed patients control robotic arms with brain signals. (Duke University’s Miguel Nicolelis has done similar work.)

BrainGate researchers also developed a small and sturdy wireless sensor to record neural activity that has proven safe for use in primates. The project is now undertaking a clinical trial that they hope will demonstrate that the implant could be safely and feasibly used in human patients.

At the same time, a virtual reality model arm being developed Case Western researchers is helping fine-tune the computer algorithm that will interface between the brain sensor and the electronic muscle stimulator by ensuring that they’re sending the right signals to the appropriate muscles.

The BrainGate research is, so far, limited to single-arm movement. According to Nicolelis’s recent research, controlling both arms or legs in tandem tasks a different and larger set of neurons in the brain. But, while Nicolelis and others are working toward using brain implants to give paralyzed patients motion while strapped into robotic exoskeletons, BrainGate would allow patients to reach and step with far less cumbersome cybernetic accessories.

Photos: Fred J. Field for Brown University, Functional Electronic Stimulation Center

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 4 Responses

  • Matthew January 26, 2014 on 12:06 pm

    …for the rich. I’m sorry but in the face of exponentially growing profits until we have basic human rights for everyone–free health, education, clothing, shelter, job availability, a livable wage in a corrected correlation with inflation–not only does this news become increasingly less exciting for me, it’s getting creepy.

    this is not our daddy’s economy anymore. there has never been more wealth. science has solved practically every conceivable aspect of the physical universe inside and out, microscopic and macroscopic or at least has workable theories covering things. why can’t science take it’s limited funding and pick up the slack on human rights and ecology? it is at once a human rights, economic, and international security imperative. the richest of the rich stand to gain the most from active consumers in a consumer based economy… love and intelligence will prevail.

    • Matthew Matthew January 26, 2014 on 12:10 pm

      never cease to be amazed at the extent to which we have safety net upon newly invented proliferating miraculous safety nets and golden parachutes for some but we the working class who created them are completely deprived/neglected. we could all arrive at our goals much faster and accelerate our future.

      • Matthew Matthew January 26, 2014 on 12:31 pm

        whichever one of these corporations embraces humanity–(like with full time work, livable wages) instead of rejecting them (like paying women 40% less, making hateful PR statements against homosexuals, minorities and the poor and returning as little as humanly possible like 0 taxes)–stands to gain the most. and far more than profits. our now “infinitely proliferating” wealth is a sign of far more than just capital. it’s the new possibilities exfoliating out of every new scientific advancement. but it is more than even that. it is centuries, milennea of human toil, suffering, and broken dreams that got us here. like …Isaac newton?… said: “if I see farther, it is only because i am standing on the shoulders of giants.” but now, that work is becoming automated by this increasingly accelerating unharnessed intelligence we have created. humanity has been stripped of it’s utility. we need gov’t and corporations to raise the bar on human rights. those are the only forces that can create order between 7 billion intelligent species. military destruction won’t solve anything now, (just as we are now discovering that arguments in AI lead to no new information) maybe it used to for some greater good in a world of limited resources like the triumvirates creating order out of the chaos manifested in a parallel reality in our past when the automation and abundance of agriculture stripped us of our self sufficient hunter/gatherer roots. but the reward was a higher standard of living for all from specilization. longer life, peace, high art, medicine. so let’s not screw it up. we are now far too destructive for our own good. and I’m not even talking about just weapons. we need to stop using fossil fuels. I am worried these “polar vortices” are ominous precursors to an impending ice age if the thermohaline circulation gets choked to death by too much freshening. the future is brighter for most (except those decreasing margins of victims of poverty/gun violence/disease–their lives are 100% a living hell)… even though things on average are better than ever for human rights, we could still screw it up globally for everyone.

  • mtoussieh September 23, 2015 on 11:38 pm

    Can an organ (like an ear, which already has been printed in a lab) be printed and then re-habilitated as an external prothesis that patients can take off and put back on but with the ability to feel through it like they do with these prothesis?
    In my opinion, that’s where the future of prothesis is – but I don’t know how far ahead that’s coming.