Thought Control, But In a Good Way


by Tim Moran

Technology under development by a team of physicians, scientists, and engineers at Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center, and Massachusetts General Hospital can translate brain signals into commands for electronic devices.

BrainGate is an implanted neural interface that can detect and record brain signals, allowing people who have lost the use of arms or legs to control a computer. The university reports that the device has allowed a woman with paralysis (tetraplegia) to accurately control a computer cursor for the last 2.7 years, an unprecedented length of time and an important longevity milestone. For the researchers, it offers a demonstration that neural activity can be read and converted into action.

So what are we actually talking about here?

According to Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a Brown engineering associate professor and director of the BrainGate pilot clinical trial: "After 1,000 days, a woman who has no functional use of her limbs and is unable to speak can reliably control a cursor on a computer screen using only the intended movement of her hand." In other words, the woman "performed two point-and-click tasks each day by thinking about moving the cursor with her hand" (Italics added). In both tasks, explained the university, she averaged better than 90 percent accuracy (which, by the way, is better accuracy than I have with a mouse). Some on-screen targets were as small as the area of a Microsoft Word menu icon.

From the Brown release:"BrainGate [...] is a combination of hardware and software that directly senses electrical signals produced by neurons in the brain that control movement. By decoding those signals and translating them into digital instructions, the system is being evaluated for its ability to give people with paralysis control of external devices such as computers, robotic assistive devices, or wheelchairs."

Researchers have heretofore wondered whether such useful signals could be tapped into inside the brain--especially for any extended period of time. It appears that they can be, which makes BrainGate and other systems of this ilk very exciting to watch.