Brand-new research has shown that paralyzed patients can control an off-the-shelf tablet using chip implants connected to their brains. The brain-computer interface (BCI) allowed subjects to move a cursor and click using nothing more than their thoughts.
This is an important breakthrough. The three patients suffered from tetraplegia, which made them unable to use their limbs. Two had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the other had a spinal cord injury. Thanks to this particular BCI, they were able to use email, chat, music, and video-streaming apps. They were able to navigate the web and perform tasks such as online shopping with ease. They could even play a virtual piano. The findings are reported in the journal PLOS ONE.
"It was great to see our participants make their way through the tasks we asked them to perform, but the most gratifying and fun part of the study was when they just did what they wanted to do – using the apps that they liked for shopping, watching videos or just chatting with friends," lead author Dr Paul Nuyujukian, a bioengineer at Stanford, said in a statement. "One of the participants told us at the beginning of the trial that one of the things she really wanted to do was play music again. So to see her play on a digital keyboard was fantastic."
The work was done by the BrainGate collaboration, which has worked to make BCIs a reality for many years. The chip is the size of a small pill and is placed in the brain's motor cortex. The sensor registers neural activity linked to intended movements. This information is then decoded and sent to external devices. The same approach by BrainGate and other groups has allowed people to move robotic limbs.
"For years, the BrainGate collaboration has been working to develop the neuroscience and neuroengineering know-how to enable people who have lost motor abilities to control external devices just by thinking about the movement of their own arm or hand," said Dr Jaimie Henderson, a senior author of the paper and a Stanford University neurosurgeon. "In this study, we've harnessed that know-how to restore people's ability to control the exact same everyday technologies they were using before the onset of their illnesses. It was wonderful to see the participants express themselves or just find a song they want to hear."
The approach will allow paralyzed people to communicate more easily with their family and friends. It will also enable them to help their caregivers to make better decisions regarding their ongoing health issues. This technology could dramatically improve the quality of life for many people.