We have the technology… that could soon allow injured people to become fully autonomous again as cybernetic humans. The future is closer than you might think.
Yesterday in an article in the journal Nature, researchers took another step forward in creating borg technology that one day may allow paraplegics and amputees to fully utilize advanced prosthetics to replace their missing limbs. In their article “Reach and grasp by people with tetraplegia using a neurally controlled robotic arm,” Leigh R. Hochberg, Daniel Bacher, Beata Jarosiewicz, Nicolas Y. Masse, John D. Simeral, Joern Vogel, Sami Haddadin, Jie Liu, Sydney S. Cash, Patrick van der Smagt, and John P. Donoghue authored a study whereby two participants–years after their last productive use of their brains to control limb movement–were able to use an implanted neural interface, called the “BrainGate,” a pocket of electronic chips placed in the brain, to transmit commands to hard-wired three-dimensional devices to direct simulated limb movement. A tetraplegic woman was able to use her own mind to move an artificial hand to allow her to drink unaided for the first time in nearly fifteen years.
Yesterday’s research was the first published demonstration that humans with severe brain injuries can practically control a prosthetic arm, using implants in the brain to transmit neural signals to an external computer.
Expanding on this research, it is easy to envision the possibilities of an advanced set of prosthetics attached to the human body that could one day serve as replacements for arms and legs–actual, useful borg technology to improve human life beyond that of current prosthetic arms and legs–for those people who have lost the functioning internal hard-wiring needed to complete even the most simple everyday tasks.
“Paralysis following spinal cord injury, brainstem stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other disorders can disconnect the brain from the body, eliminating the ability to perform volitional movements. A neural interface system could restore mobility and independence for people with paralysis by translating neuronal activity directly into control signals for assistive devices,” the study reported. “Here we demonstrate the ability of two people with long-standing tetraplegia to use neural interface system-based control of a robotic arm to perform three-dimensional reach and grasp movements.”
With little advance direction, a 58-year-old woman and 66 year old man who had suffered debilitating strokes were able to use a small group of neurons in their brain stems connected via a 96-channel microelectrode array to operate a hand and arm machine. The 58-year-old woman, using a sensor implanted 5 years earlier, used a robotic arm to drink coffee from a bottle. “Our results demonstrate the feasibility for people with tetraplegia, years after injury to the central nervous system, to recreate useful multidimensional control of complex devices directly from a small sample of neural signals,” the study said.
The basic commands used electronic signal patterns to direct the machine to move “left,” “right” and “down”. The interface was centered on the participants’ heads, but future research could include the sending of wireless signals, although this has not yet been realized. The BrainGate2 project furthered an earlier 2006 study that allowed a man to use his thoughts to move a computer cursor as part of an early phase of this research project. Although practical application is likely years away because of FDA approvals and necessary improvements, news of this study will hopefully cause other researchers to expand the reach of this work.
More information and the complete journal report can be found at Nature.com.