Thought controlled arm to help people with paralysis reach and grasp

The ultimate goal is to not only control robotic prostheses but directly trigger movement in paralyzed limbs through thought alone.

Brain computer interface

It may sound like science fiction, but the development of a second generation brain computer interface (BCI) that can read the minds of people with paralysis in order to control a robotic arm, or even their own arm, is the focus of a major Wyss Center-led project.

The next step in BCI development

The next big step in this ambitious project is to create a wireless neural communication link between the brain and arm that will replace  cables and enable full time BCI use. The aim now is to accelerate the development of an implantable neurocommunicator (Neurocomm) that can control robotic prostheses or the paralyzed arm, and help restore independence for people with severe paralysis, neurological disease or limb loss.

The work builds on previous successful tests in which a tiny microelectrode array was placed just into the surface of the cerebral cortex (the outer gray matter of the brain) of patients with severe paralysis to allow their thoughts to control computer cursors and robot arms, and more recently their own arm, showing that a tiny patch of the cerebral cortex is able to provide sophisticated command signals. Until now however, the connection between the brain, the computer and the arm has been via cables.

“We are now working to miniaturize the implant and to equip it with a wifi connection so that it can be entirely wireless and under the skin.”

Professor John Donoghue
Director of the Wyss Center

Restoring commmunication, mobility, and independence

The electrode array detects the intention to move, via electrical activity of neurons in the motor area of the cortex, and relays a pattern of neural signals to a computer through a wired cable connection though a plug that goes through the skin. The computer translates the signal into digital commands able to operate a computer, a robotic limb, or almost any other device.

“We are now working to miniaturize the implant and equip it with a wifi connection so that the Neurocomm can be entirely wireless and implanted under the skin,” said Professor John Donoghue, Director of the Wyss Center, who originally developed the early BCIs at Brown University in the US.

Making a miniature, wireless, low-power and fully implantable device is a major engineering and neuroscience challenge.

The team is now creating a Neurocomm for initial human clinical use, to give those who need it most the opportunity to communicate, interact and regain independence.

The ultimate goal of the project is for a BCI to overcome the break between the brain and body caused by injury to the spinal cord, brain, or nerves that leads to paralysis. The device would allow people to not only control robotic prostheses but to directly control their own paralyzed limbs through thought alone.

The work is part of an ongoing collaboration with Brown University.

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