With a wireless brain interface, those who are paralyzed — perhaps because of a car accident or maybe ALS — may soon have more control over their lives. Instead of being dependent on loved ones, they may be able to move their wheelchair or change their TV remote to “The Big Bang Theory,” quite literally, with the power of their thoughts.
Researchers at Brown University have partnered with Blackrock Microsystems on a wireless device that can be attached to a person’s skull, from which radio thought commands can be sent, according to MIT Technology Review.
This wireless device, which is about the size of your car’s gas cap, builds on previous attempts at placing implants in the brains of paralyzed people. While those devices were able to demonstrate that electrical signals sent within the brain could be used to move a robotic arm or navigate with a wheelchair, a limitation with those devices was that they only worked when accompanied by a team of laboratory assistants. That’s because the devices relied on wires that connected to processing equipment to “read” the brain signals.
This new device is attached to the skull and then wired to electrodes within the brain. External to the brain is a processor that amplifies those electronic signals and communicates them to a nearby receiver. This communication loop allows the paralyzed person to type or move their wheelchair or change the channel on their TV.
The device transmits data out of the brain at rate of 48 megabits per second, about as fast as a residential Internet connection, Arto Nurmikko, a professor at Brown University, explained to MIT Technology Review. And the device uses far less power than your smartphone does.
Small trials with a handful of paralyzed patients — including some in the late stages of ALS — using a previous version of this device are underway in Boston and California. Blackrock Microsystems is selling the wireless processor for about $15,000 to research labs that study primates.
Converting this research into real-world application will remain a challenge until the device is both simpler and more reliable. According to MIT Technology Review, a team at Brown University has been testing a prototype of a fully implanted device, though that device isn’t yet available for sale.
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