As Neuroscience, computer science and robotics research develops at exponential rates; scientists are beginning to realise things that once seemed like distant fantasies. Research that would not be out of place in a state of the art sci-fi blockbuster are right here right now, and may be accessible to the average person within the next 10 years. Scientists are making huge strides in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), which refers to a direct communication pathway between the brain and external devices. In today’s world, there are products on Amazon that can read your brainwaves through electroencephalography (EEG), there are robotic arms in laboratories that can be controlled by brain waves and demonstrations of brain controlled exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to walk again simply by thinking about it. A direct relationship between computers and the brain is here, and it might become an everyday thing sooner than people think. Below are two new technologies that demonstrate the power and rapid rise of BCI; technologies that have the potential to greatly impact people’s lives. Technologies that will ultimately change the way we view computers.
Brain Implants That Allow people to control robotic arms
BCI is being used to greatly improve the standard of people’s lives, and this no more evident than in the development of new robotic arms for paralysed individuals. There has already been demonstrations of mind control robotic technology in amputees, however, an amputee still has their spinal cord and nervous system in tact. This means that electrical impulses can be read out from nerves in the arms and chest before they are used to control the prosthetic limb. However, in the case of spinal injury patients, these signals need to be decoded directly from the brain.
More recently, the prospect of patients with spinal injuries being able to seemlessly control robotic limbs or even entire body suits in the future has been raised. New BCI technologies have led to the development of a neuro-prosthetic device implant. These devices are planted in the area of the brain where intentions are made. Simply by thinking about moving their arms, participants have been able to move a robotic arm to help them with all kinds of tasks such as drinking from a bottle, performing a smooth hand-shaking gesture and playing rock, paper, scissors.
In the process of creating the neuro prosthetic device, scientists were focusing on gathering signals from the brains motor cortex. The motor cortex is where the brain generates the electrical signals that are sent down the spinal cord and control the contractions of every muscular movement. The replying neuro-prosthetics produced movements that were delayed and jerky; not the smooth and seemingly automatic gestures associated with natural movement. They then decided to move the implants into the ‘higher’ brain region, called the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), which gives rise to the intention of movement, rather than the details of how to execute. By decoding a person’s actual intentions, the scientists were able to get closer to achieving their goal.
The participants underwent surgery where they had a pair of small electrode arrays implanted in two parts of the PPC. Each four by four millimetre array contained 96 electrodes each recording the activity of single neurons. The arrays are connected by a cable to a system or computer processors that decode the brain’s intent and turn into movement of the robotic arm. The technology can be viewed in a video.
The implications of this research may change the lives of paralysed people across the world. By implanting two small chips into the PPC an individual may be able to control all kinds of technology, simply by thinking it. The next question is how far will the technology go and how quickly?
Mind Controlled Exoskeleton Suit That Allows Paraplegics To Walk
One bit of BCI technology that has received a lot of media attention is an exoskeleton that can be controlled by the user’s thoughts. In the opening ceremony of the 2014 Brazil World Cup, a paraplegic man walked and kicked a ball thanks to BCI technology. Neuroengineer Miguel Nicolelis led a group of 156 people from 25 different countries in a project that spanned 18 months, with the ultimate aim of creating an exoskeleton controlled by thought processes.
The mind controlled exoskeleton is built out of lightweight alloys and powered by hydraulics. It uses sensors to read the electrical activity of the brain which generates the motor commands that are usually downloaded onto the spinal cord. The motor planning is a result of electrical impulses in the brain, picked up by sensors and then converted into digital commands which are then sent to the exoskeleton. After spinal cord lesions the brain still sends these messages but the body can not receive them because of the break in the spine. Instead, the exoskeleton becomes the body, so the impulses do not go down the spines to the muscles instead they go to a computer which decodes them and sends them to the exoskeleton.
To use the skeleton, the person is helped into the suit and given a cap with sensors in that are fitted with electrodes. These signals are then passed to the computer in the backpack where they are read and decoded. An operators feet rest on plates, which also have sensors, that detect when contact is made with the ground. With each footfall a signal shoots up to a vibrating device sewn into the forearm of the weavers shirt. The device seems to fool the brain into thinking that the sensation came from their foot. In virtual reality simulations, patients felt like their legs were moving and touching something.
This technology may just put wheelchairs in museums, technology keeps on developing at incredible rates since the World Cup. Companies are starting to invest heavily in research of the exoskeleton, with the vision of being the first to create the technology that allows paraplegics to walk again. Nicolelis believe that the technology is ripe for turning into everyday devices to help paralysed patients. The system has been passed as safe to use. The exoskeleton has been fitted with multiple gyros to stop it from falling over during the balancing act of bipedal walking.
BCI advances are coming fast and thick at the moment, and show no signs of slowing. The days when amputees can fit a robotic arm in every morning as if they never lost a limb are upon us, and it will not be long until the technology spreads to more commercially driven products. The day when you can turn off the light just by thinking of it is almost here, and it’s an exciting time for science!