Patients Testing A Brain-Computer Interface

From Wired: Five quadriplegic patients might be months away from testing a brain-computer interface created by Cyberkinetics, a privately held company in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The first trial to test the safety of the BrainGate will take place at a Boston clinic.

The company’s system, called BrainGate, could help patients with no mobility to control a computer, a robot or eventually their own rewired muscles, using only their thoughts. If the trials go well, a product could be on the market by 2007.

Cyberkinetics already has trained monkeys to move a cursor using only thought, and has asked the Food and Drug Administration for permission to test the device on humans. If BrainGate works and is safe, healthy people who simply want to increase their brain bandwidth might be an additional market. Darpa funded some of the original research with the goal of helping soldiers deal with high-volume brain demands.

The device, based on a decade of brain-interpretation research, starts with a computer chip, which is essentially a 2-millimeter-by-2-millimeter plug with 100 electrodes. Surgeons will attach the plug like Velcro to neurons in the motor cortex, which is located in the brain just above the right ear. Through the 100 prongs, researchers can “listen” to 50 to 150 neurons at once, which gives them a robust reading from a neural network in the brain. Signals from the neuron travel from the plug through a fiber-optic cable to a device about the size of a VHS tape that digitizes the neuronal signals. Another cable from the digitizer runs to a computer system that translates the signal. Perhaps the whole system eventually will be wireless.