People with paralysis can use brain-computer interface to control devices

People with paralysis can use brain-computer interface to control devices
© iStock/metamorworks

Research shows brain-computer interface (BCI) allows people with paralysis to directly operate tablet/mobile devices just by thinking about making cursor movements and clicks.

Tablets, mobile and general electronic computing devices are part of everyday life, although using them can be difficult for people with paralysis. However, new research from the BrainGate consortium shows that a brain-computer interface can enable people with paralysis to directly operate an off-the-shelf tablet device just by thinking about making cursor movements and clicks.

What do you know about brain-computer interface?

The investigational BrainGate brain-computer interface that records neural activity directly from a small sensor placed in the motor cortex, was used by participants with tetraplegia. These patients were able to navigate through commonly used tablet programs, including email, chat, music-streaming and video-sharing apps.

Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a senior author of the paper and a Stanford University neurosurgeon, USA, explains: “For years, the BrainGate collaboration has been working to develop the neuroscience and neuroengineering know-how to enable people who have lost motor abilities to control external devices just by thinking about the movement of their own arm or hand.”

“In this study, we’ve harnessed that know-how to restore people’s ability to control the exact same everyday technologies they were using before the onset of their illnesses. It was wonderful to see the participants express themselves or just find a song they want to hear.”

Details of the brain-computer interface

The investigational brain-computer interface includes a baby 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. The researchers and other groups using similar technologies have shown that the device can allow people with paralysis to move robotic arms or to regain control of their own limbs, despite having lost motor abilities from illness or injury.

The participants in this latest study were those suffering from loss of movement of their arms and legs due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and spinal cord injury.

For this study, neural signals from the brain-computer interface were connected 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 ease BCI can provide to people with paralysis

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 reported finding the interface intuitive and fun to use, one said, “It felt more natural than the times I remember using a mouse.”

Lead author Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, explains the success of the study: “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.”

The researchers were overjoyed by the fact that the tablet devices were entirely unaltered and had all the preloaded accessibility software turned off, as this was an important part of the study. The study essentially has the potential to open important new lines of communication between patients with severe neurological deficits and their health care providers.

Dr. Leigh Hochberg of Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Providence VA Medical Centre, USA, describes the tremendous potential for the restorative capabilities that brain-computer interface has for people with paralysis and those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases.

“We are getting closer to being able to tell someone who has been diagnosed with ALS, ‘even while we continue to seek out a cure, you will never lose the ability to communicate.’ This work is a step toward those goals.”


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