People with paralysis are learning to control tablet devices with just their thoughts, as part of a clinical trial being carried out by scientists at Brown University, in the US.
New research from the BrainGate consortium shows that a brain-computer interface (BCI) can enable people with paralysis to directly operate an off-the-shelf tablet device just by thinking about making cursor movements and clicks.
The study’s researchers included scientists, engineers and physicians from Brown University’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center (PVAMC), Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Stanford University.
The research saw three people with tetraplegia using an investigational BrainGate BCI that records neural activity directly from a small sensor placed in the motor cortex. Each participant was able to navigate through commonly used tablet programs, including email, chat, music-streaming and video-sharing apps.
Two of the participants had weakness or loss of movement of their arms and legs due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive disease affecting the nerves in the brain and spine that control movement. The third participant was paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury.
Brain implant enables tablet control
The investigational BrainGate BCI includes an aspirin-sized implant that detects the signals associated with intended movements produced in the brain’s motor cortex. Those signals are then decoded and routed to external devices.
BrainGate researchers and other groups using similar technologies have shown that the device can enable people to move robotic arms or to regain control of their own limbs, despite having lost motor abilities from illness or injury.
Neural signals from the BrainGate BCI were routed to a Bluetooth interface configured to work like a wireless mouse. The virtual mouse was then paired to an unmodified Google Nexus 9 tablet. The participants were then asked to perform a set of tasks designed to see how well they were able to navigate within a variety of commonly used apps, and move from app to app.
The participants browsed through music selections on a streaming service, searched for videos on YouTube, scrolled through a news aggregator and composed emails and chats.
The study showed that participants were able to make up to 22 point-and-click selections per minute while using a variety of apps. In text apps, the participants were able to type up to 30 effective characters per minute using standard email and text interfaces.
The participants messaged with family, friends, members of the research team and their fellow participants. They surfed the web, checked the weather and shopped online. One participant, a musician, played a snippet of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a digital piano interface.
Lead author Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, a bioengineer at Stanford said:
“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.
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.
New lines of communication
The researchers say that the study also has the potential to open important new lines of communication between patients with severe neurological deficits and their healthcare providers.
“This has great potential for restoring reliable, rapid and rich communication for somebody with locked-in syndrome who is unable to speak,” said Jose Albites Sanabria, who performed this research as a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Brown University.
“That not only could provide increased interaction with their family and friends, but can provide a conduit for more thoroughly describing ongoing health issues with caregivers.”
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The benefits of unlocking the potential of brain-controlled devices for use by people with paralysis is clear to see. Such technology can give them the ability to interact with computers independently, opening the door to previously impossible avenues of communication and creativity.
These benefits extend to able-bodied individuals too. Research at MIT has explored the potential of brain-controlled robots. In the field of cobotics, where robots and human operators work together, the ability to control a robot with their mind could allow operators to work more efficiently and retain the use of their hands for other tasks.
As thought-reading technology advances beyond basic tasks, new ethical questions will arise, but the possibilities emerging today have exciting use cases in both healthcare and other industries.