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Enhanced Humans

Experimental Brain Implant Lets A Paralyzed Woman Communicate

We have our first practical brain-computer interface device.

Jess VilvestreNovember 15th 2016

At-Home Progress

For the first time ever, an at-home brain implant has helped a paralyzed patient communicate without the need of a team to constantly recalibrate the device. The wireless implant reads signals from brain activity and translates it into a signal received by an external computer.

The patient is a 48-year-old amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient, who was diagnosed eight years ago. ALS is a disorder that affects the function of nerves and muscles, afflicting about 20,000 people in the U.S.

The patient was using an eye-tracking device to communicate when she first met the researchers from the Brain Center of University Medical Center Utrecht. They introduced to the patient a brain-computer interface (BCI) consisting of electrodes placed on the surface of the brain, one over a region that controls movement of the right hand, and the other over an area that is used for counting backwards. Brain-computer interfaces bridge a connection between the brain and controllable external devices.

Wikimedia Commons
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

So far, brain-computer interface devices have had limited success. The complexity of other iterations of the technology has made them difficult to integrate into patients’ daily lives since they often required daily recalibrating by teams of technicians.

“We thought, let’s make it simple and affordable for a patient who really needs it,” said Nick Ramsey, Brain Center neuro-psychopharmacologist. “We’ve built a system that’s reliable and autonomous that works at home without any extra help. There’s not a single system that even comes close to this.”

Within six months of at-home training, the patient developed 95 percent accuracy using the device. She has been able to communicate by spelling words and even play simple games, all with being able to control a virtual clicking device.

Open Your Mind

There have been many recent breakthroughs with BCIs to help patients regain control of their body. Most developments have been for aiding the paralyzed, meeting the disjoint between the brain and the malfunctioning connection to other body parts.

Apart from treating the sick, brain-computer interfaces could also potentially make us superhuman—controlling gadgets and computers with our thoughts is no longer just sci-fi fodder. In the future, we might be able to have super-sensitive hearing, see in the dark, control bionic body extensions, maybe even have telekinetic control.

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