Brain-controlled robotic limbs could soon give paralyzed individuals a new chance at mobility.
Researchers say they will implant brain-computer interfaces — devices that convert brain waves into movement of an external computer — into the brains of two patients with spinal cord injuries before the end of this year. The patients will play video games, interact with a virtual world, and control robotic devices and a prosthetic arm, all while their brain activity is recorded. The researchers hope to find that the implants offer these patients good control of such external devices.
“What I expect is that subjects are going to control prosthetic devices and other devices with multiple degrees of freedom, meaning that we’ll be able to extract really rich control signals from the brain that then will offer a huge leap in the ability of someone with significant disability like an amputation or spinal cord injury to control devices that help them become independent,” said Michael Boninger, a professor and chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh.
While this isn’t the first time such a device has been implanted into the brain of a patient with a spinal cord injury, the researchers expect their devices to offer far more control, or “degrees of freedom.”
For example, moving a cursor up and down as well as side to side simultaneously requires two degrees of freedom. Animal studies at the University of Pittsburgh have shown six degrees of freedom with a computer interface that penetrates the brain.
Two brain-computer interfaces will be tested in the upcoming human trials. The first involves electrocorticography — a series of small discs that record electrical activity from the surface of the brain. This device will be placed on the surface of the patient’s brain for 30 days. The second device consists of 100 tiny pins that penetrate the brain. This device will record from individual brain cells.
“They’re kind of complementary technologies potentially, where something on the surface of the brain might be something that is ready sooner and is a little bit less invasive,” Boninger explained.
“It might work for some people and then for other people it might be important that you be able to record from individual brain cells and that’s part of what we’re going to learn.”
The researchers expect the surface device to be ready for clinical trials in three years, followed by the penetrating device a few years later.
The University of Pittsburgh has received close to $7 million in funding for the projects.
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