Brain Implant Allows Two Paralyzed People To Control Computers With Thoughts

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In the USA alone, there are approximately 5.4 million people living with some form of paralysis right now. A debilitating condition that prevents people from performing many simple daily tasks, partial or total paralysis has represented one of the largest clinical challenges to both manage and treat.

In a new study published in NeuroInterventional Surgery, researchers from the University of Melbourne have showcased a technology that could allow patients to control computers with just their brain. Compacted into just the size of a paperclip, this device could enable people with upper limb paralysis to perform an array of tasks that were previously impossible, such as texting, emailing, and browsing the web.

The study described two individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that underwent surgery to implant the device into their brain. Following their recovery, the device was used alongside an eye tracker to perform a number of computer-based tasks to see how effective the system is.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease and motor neurone disease, is a progressive disease of the nervous system that slowly affects motor control within muscles and eventually removes the ability to speak, eat, and even breathe. Professor Stephen Hawking famously lived with this disease, relying on a computer translator to communicate that was controlled by minuscule cheek twitches. Whilst this worked well and enabled Prof. Hawking to continue sharing his work, it is hoped that interfacing with the computer directly will allow patients to perform more of their daily tasks with increased ease of use.

The device is a small, wireless implant that interfaces with the individual’s brain and, in combination with an eye tracker to move the cursor, allows for direct control of a computer without the use of hands. To implant the device, a small keyhole incision is made in the neck and the chip is inserted just above the sinuses, adjacent to the primary motor cortex.

Figure showing the endovascular moto neuroprosthesis system and the device in place. Credit: Oxley et al., 2020

“This is the first time an operation of this kind has been done, so we couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be problems, but in both cases the surgery has gone better than we had hoped,” Professor Mitchell, Neurointervention Service Director and principal investigator on the trial, said in a statement.

Despite not being able to completely move either of their arms, the device allowed both patients to complete online banking, online shopping, and texting friends and family. The patients then undertook further training involving machine learning to increase the functions available to them – as a result, they could soon use multiple mouse functions, such as zooming in. The two patients managed an average click accuracy of 92-93 percent and typing speeds of 14 and 20 characters a minute without predictive text.

“We are excited to report that we have delivered a fully implantable, take home, wireless technology that does not require open brain surgery, which functions to restore freedoms for people with severe disability,” Associate Professor Thomas Oxley, who is also co-head of the Vascular Bionics Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, said.

The results represent an exciting preliminary report of what can be achieved with this technology, but we are still years away from neural interface devices reaching the masses. Further trials are now planned across Australia with hopes for an increased cohort size to continue analyzing the viability of the device.

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