In a post from February, I wrote about two computer programs that could reconstruct the words a person hears by analyzing their brain activity. I mentioned BrainGate and included a picture of my late husband, Stephen, and his little ‘top hat’ as we called the sensor implanted in his brain.
I expect great things to come bounding out of the world of neurotechnology and again, it delivers with a punch! The June issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience reports on the latest BrainGate study using robotic arms to reach and grasp items for two patients with almost total body paralysis. Scientists have been working on the minds of animals controlling machines since the 1970s, but this is the first time a human has actually controlled a robotic arm with their mind.
The two patients had very tiny electrode arrays, implanted in their motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls voluntary movements. The array reads the brain’s signals and sends them through wires attached to the sensor (top hat!) to an external computer that translates the signals into a command to the robotic arm. The signals from the brain create a pattern that tells the robotic arm to move left or right or up or down. The patients in the study had no training in using the implant, and after about half an hour of calibrating the device to fit the person’s brain activity, they were able to successfully reach and touch a series of foam ball targets 49% to 95% of the time in over 200 trials! It’s just that easy!
This is an amazing advance in empowering people with brain or spinal injuries and it proved that the implants would not lose their signal-reading capabilities over time, which was a concern. It also proves Stephen’s theory that rather than a cure for diseases like ALS, people would just evolve into cyborgs surviving diseases and injuries with technology. You can see Stephen working on being a future cyborg at minute 2:15 of Nature Video.