It is a horrifying concept: being buried alive. Even more terrible is the prospect of living trapped in our own bodies, unable to move or communicate. It’s called locked-in syndrome. Characters like Captain Pike and Jean-Dominique Bauby, (one fictional, the other not) describe the fear and frustration of living with a healthy mind in a broken body. But there is a real-life hope. As its name suggests, Cyberkinetics’ Braingate Neural Interface device allows patients to open the door between their mind and the outside world. Utilizing years of research studying brain signals, Braingate can read impulses in the brain using tiny implanted wires and translate those impulses into commands for computer cursors, wheelchairs, and perhaps even robotic limbs.
The procedure for implanting Braingate may seem pure science fiction, but it works. Hair-thin gold wires are connected to individual neurons in the brain’s motor cortex. These wires are gathered at a small silicon array and connected to a “pedestal” embedded in the skull. This metallic interface is easy to spot (it’s a big metal nub on the top of the head). From the pedestal, signals can be sent to a computer for translation. By interpreting the motor cortex signals, scientists can determine what your brain would be trying to move (arm, hand, finger, etc) if you weren’t paralyzed.
So you have a metal nub in your head, and some wires poking into your brain, what’s the pay off? How about the most intuitive mouse ever: by thinking about raising or lowering their hands, patients can move a cursor on the screen of a PC. Squeeze their imaginary hand, and the cursor clicks. The brain signals aren’t completely mapped out yet, and keeping track of one’s thoughts isn’t an easy task, so the cursor tends to jiggle a little and can be hard to move quickly. That being said, it allows individuals who have a hard time even blinking to be able to communicate with others and manipulate devices from their computer. Check out Kathy Hutchinson, one of the first patients, in this story from 60 minutes, the cable connected to her skull seems to be straight out of the Matrix:
Moving Right Along
This amazing technology is the work of many different collaborators, chief among them are Dr. John Donoghue from Brown University, who is also the head of Cyberkinetics, and Dr. Leigh Hochberg from Massachusetts General Hospital. While most of the videos you can find of these two are more than a year old, their work is still developing quickly. Dr. Hochberg began the long process of pilot clinical trials back in February of this year. With the clinical trials will come a better understanding of how to interpret motor cortex signals and increase the tasks able to be performed by patients. Cyberkinetics is already testing a motorized wheelchair, and has plans to develop methods for regaining breathing, bladder, and bowel control.
Expectedly, Braingate is well received publicly and Dr. Hochberg is seeking Investigational Device Exemption from the FDA. Like the Humanitarian Device Exemption given to other implants, this allows the research to continue with human trials quickly. And the technology is developing at a rapid pace. It was only 2005 when we first heard about the beginning experiments to map signals from the brains of rhesus monkeys. The next four to five years will likely see another flurry of development.
I think that this technology is on the brink of runaway growth and success. As Braingate moves forward and is refined, it is poised to mesh with dozens of other related technologies. Singularity Hub has shown you the prosthetic devices, robotic exoskeletons, brain controlled robots, and fMRI mind-reading systems already on the horizon. Soon, I think we’ll see a convergence of these various tools that, while developed separately, have a similar goal: allowing human thoughts to directly affect real-world objects. Once these technologies function better than normal human equivalents we will seem them transition from therapies to everyday utilities.
For now, Braingate returns a precious commodity: control. For many locked-in their own bodies, the best hope they had would be to communicate by blinking. Using a direct neural interface, these same patients have the prospect of writing letters for themselves and maybe even guiding their own wheelchairs. In the future, those prospects may expand to include walking with the help of an exoskeleton or commanding a helper robot. Without a doubt, brain signal technology is taking small steady steps forward every day. Like the Count de Monte Cristo, scientists are slowly digging an escape from the prison that these patients are held in. Together with their patients, they prove that even greater than the terror of being buried alive is the determination to one day be free again.