Paralyzed patient moving his arm in a simulated environment using the brain interface. (via University of Ohio, MIT)
It seems like every week there's another too good to be true story about a paralyzed patient walking, seeing, or speaking for the first time in years. THIS IS A GREAT THING! Not only are the stories true, a team of doctors in Ohio have their own miracle. The doctors at Case Western Reserve University used electronics to get around a spinal injury and use a brain implant to move his arm and hand. It works by having a brain control interface (BCI) reading the patient's brain waves coming from his motor cortex, which then converts them into electrical signals and wirelessly transmit them into an actuator placed in the patient's arm. The actuator is made out of 16 filament wires to generate electrical pulses that causes different muscles groups to contract when stimulated. It creates movement in the shoulder, elbow, and wrist allowing the patient to carry out daily tasks. It's more challenging than it sounds.
While the unnamed patient can control their arm somewhat, it's still not enough for them to pick up a can of soda to drink it. “But the fact that they got a person to control their own body, to stimulate muscles in a specific way to make them move, and do it from a small patch of brain, is incredible,” says John Donoghue of Braingate, the consortium that developed the BCI. Since the patient has been paralyzed for so long his muscles are weak and atrophied making it more difficult for the functional electrical stimulation (FES). But doctors remain hopeful; they believe the patient's control will improve as his arm regain strength.
(Left) 96 silicon needles record the brain's impulses with the Utah Electrode. (Right) Functional Electrical Stimulation, or FES, stimulates muscle movement in the paralyzed patient. (via University of Ohio, MIT)
This isn't the first time FES systems have been combine with brain-computer interfaces. The practice began 20 years with a 1998 experiment on a volunteer named Jim Jatich where signals collected from an EEG cap triggered an early FES device called Freehand that opened and closed his hands using simulators. Though the device was innovative at the time, it's not as efficient as the current FES system. More information can be collected when implants are place in contact with the brain's motor cortex.
Even though the system still has a lot of things to work out, it's a great step forward in helping those who are paralyzed. As long as doctors and scientists are dedicated to using the technology to their advantage these solutions won't seem so far off.
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