How a Brain Implant Helped Three People Text

Stanford engineers and neurosurgeons have developed a new experimental brain-controlled technology designed to help paralyzed patients channel thoughts into movement and speech.

Kristopher Sturgis

Stanford's Jaimie Henderson and Krishna Shenoy are part of a consortium working on an investigational brain-to-computer hookup.

 

A project nearly 15 years in the making is beginning to come to fruition for a group of Stanford researchers who have been working tirelessly to create a new brain-computer interface (BCI) device that can be implanted into the brain to help restore speech and movement abilities to patients suffering from paralysis or severe movement disabilities.

The device has been introduced to three movement-impaired individuals as part of a new clinical trial, and has already begun to produce remarkable results. The device, which measures about the size of a baby aspirin, was implanted into the brain of each participant to record signals from their motor cortex -- the region of the brain that controls muscle movement. The signals were then transported to a computer and translated by algorithms that could guide a cursor to characters on a keyboard. The end result was a technique that enabled all three patients to compose and send text messages through the power of thought.

After some brief training, each participant was able to master the technique enough to outperform the results of any previous BCI technique designed to enhance communication for movement-impaired patients. The group also noted that these patients achieved these unprecedented typing rates without the use of any automatic word-completion assistance, a common electronic keyboard application that could eventually boost their performance even further.

Efforts to explore brain-computer interface technologies have continued to expand over the years as researchers aim to leverage new technologies as a means to bypass brain and spinal injuries that impair movement. In 2015 doctors from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio were able to use a wireless brain-computer interface system in tandem with electrodes implanted into the arm of a patient to restore movement to a once-paralyzed limb. The project marked a significant advancement in BCI technologies, specifically those using wireless transmitters to execute thought-based commands.

While this new technology uses a cable to transmit signals from the brain to a computer, the algorithms that translate the signals to point-and-click commands are what enable the patients to control cursor movement with unprecedented speed and dexterity. Researchers say the approach could even be applied to a bevy of different computing devices without significant modifications, including tablets and smartphones.

Despite the success of the recent trials, the group maintains that a significant amount of work lies ahead, as they intend to expand the types of devices people can operate with the BCI implant. Their goal is to eventually create a device that can enable movement-impaired patients to use a variety of off-the-shelf assistive devices to help them interact with the world around them. In time, the researchers believe the device could completely change how we treat paralysis, nervous system disorders, and other movement disabilities, improving their lives unlike ever before.

Kristopher Sturgis is a Qmed contributor.

[Image credit: Paul Sakuma, Stanford]

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