Imagine moving things about with nothing more than just your brain waves. This is not some science fiction movie with an exaggerated depiction of an obscure term called Telekinesis – the art of moving matter with thought. Some 15-20 patients have joined studies of brain implants that can convey information from the brain to a computer. These include patients in advanced stages of ALS and those completely or partially paralyzed.
All the patients have undergone similar tests conducted by BrainGate, a closely related study. Some patients, totally unable to move to speak, have so far regained some ability to communicate because of electrodes implanted in their brains. A Georgia company called Neural Signals has developed the electrodes.
In 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration loosened its rules for testing “fully pioneering technologies” such as brain-machine interfaces. Since then, one-third of the patients have undergone surgery for inserting implants into their brains. Other human experiments under way, such as at Caltech, are trying to offer patients autonomous control over Android, the tablet operating system from Google.
Another team, at the Ohio State University is collaborating with Battelle, an R&D organization, for inserting an implant within a patient. They intent to use the brain waves of the patient to control stimulators attached to the arm. According to Battele, They aim to reanimate the paralyzed limb via voluntary control of the patient’s thoughts.
Whenever someone intends to move a limb, a few dozen cells in his or her brain generate electrical activity that can be easily recorded. That gives a fairly accurate picture of what the brain intends to do. Although the brain contains billions of neurons, scientists have been able to sample a couple of hundred of them to get some signals.
Although still experimental, the neural engineering program at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke initially developed the technology to study animals in physiology labs. They have refined this to a point where the technology can be applied to humans as well.
A bundle of wires leading from the human patient’s cranium reaches a bulky rack containing signal processors, amplifiers and computers. The apparatus enables lifelike movements in the dexterous hand and fingers of a nine-pound robotic arm. However, the movements are finicky and somewhat dangerous, breaking frequently because of loose connections.
According to John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at the Brown University leading the BrainGate study, today’s brain-machine interface is similar to that of the first pacemakers. They too had wires punched through the skin, reaching the heart and were connected to carts full of electronics. He says brain-machine interfaces today are at the start of a similar trajectory, and will ultimately reach a stage such as that of the present-day self-contained pacemaker, powered by a long-lasting battery.
Researchers were able to demonstrate practical activities – the tasks of daily living, something that most of us take for granted, such as brushing teeth. They examined the patient’s abilities using the Action Research Arm Test, where the patient scored 17 out of 57 in dexterity tests. This was about similar to results that someone with a severe stroke would have obtained.