The Future is Here: Overcoming Paralysis

neurobridge_ianIan Burkhart, a 23-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio, was injured in 2010 in a diving accident, breaking his neck on a sandbar and paralyzing his body from the neck down. He was left with some use of his arms, but lost the use of his legs, hands, and fingers. Thanks to a new device known as the Neurobridge though – a device that allows the brains signals to bypass the severed spinal cord – Burkhart has now moved his right hand and fingers for the first time since the accident.

This device, which was developed in concert by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the non-profit company Battelle, consists of a pea-sized chip that contains an an array of 96 electrodes, allows researchers to look at detailed signals and neural activity emanating from the patient’s brain. This chip was implanted in Ian’s brain two months ago, when neurosurgeon Dr Ali Rezai of Ohio State University performed the surgery that would implant the sensor chip into the motor cortex of his brain.

neuromorphic_revolutionBattelle has been working on neurosensing technology for almost a decade. As Chad Bouton, the leader of the Neurobridge project at Battelle, explains:

We were having such success in decoding brain activity, we thought, ‘Let’s see if we could remap the signals, go around something like a spinal cord injury and then translate the signals into something that the muscles could understand and help someone paralyzed regain control of their limb’.

During the test, which occurred in June, the implanted chip read and interpreted the electrical activity in Burkhart’s brain and sent it to a computer. The computer then recoded the signal, and sent it to a high-definition electrode stimulation sleeve Burkhart wore on his right arm, a process that took less than a tenth of a second and allowed Burkhart to move his paralysed fingers. Basically, Burkhart is able to move his hand by simply thinking about moving his hand, and the machine does the rest.

neurobridge1A team led by Chad Bouton at Battelle spent nearly a decade developing the algorithms, software and sleeve. Then, just two years ago, Dr Ali Rezai and Dr Jerry Mysiw were brought on board to design the clinical trials. Burkhart became involved with the study after his doctor mentioned it to him and he learned he was an ideal candidate. He had the exact level of injury the researchers were looking for, is young and otherwise healthy, and lives close to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, where the research is being conducted.

Even so, Burkhart had to think hard before agreeing to the surgery. He also knew that the surgery wouldn’t magically give him movement again. He would have to undergo rigorous training to regain even basic hand function. Mainly, his experience would help move along future technological advances. However, he was excited to be taking part in cutting-edge research which would ultimately help people like him who have suffered from spinal injuries and paralysis.

enhancementPost-surgery, Burkhart still had a lot of thinking to do, this time, in order to move his hand. As he explained:

It’s definitely great for me to be as young as I am when I was injured because the advancements in science and technology are growing rapidly and they’re only going to continue to increase… Mainly, it was just the fact that I would have to have brain surgery for something that wasn’t needed… Anyone able bodied doesn’t think about moving their hand, it just happens. I had to do lots of training and coaching.

The hand can make innumerable complex movements with the wrist, the fingers, and the fist. In order for Battelle’s software to read Ian’s mind, it has to look for subtle changes in the signals coming from Ian’s brain. As Bouton explains it, the process is like walking into a crowded room with hundreds of people trying to talk to each other, and you’re trying to isolate one particular conversation in a language that you don’t understand.

neurobridgeAt this point, Burkhart can perform a handful of movement patterns, including moving his hand up and down, opening and closing it, rotating it, and drumming on a table with his fingers. All of this can only be done while he’s in the hospital, hooked up to the researchers’ equipment. But the ultimate goal is to create a device and a software package that he can take with him, giving him the ability to bypass his injury and have full ambulatory ability during everyday activities.

This isn’t the only research looking into bringing movement back to the paralyzed. In the past, paralyzed patients have been given brain-computer interfaces, but they have only been able to control artificial limbs – i.e. Zak Water’s mind-controlled leg or the BrainGate’s device that allow stroke victims to eat and drink using a mind-controlled robotic arm. Participants in an epidural stimulator implant study have also been able to regain some movement in their limbs, but this technology works best on patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries.

braingate_drinkassistBurkhart is confident that he can regain even more movement back from his hand, and the researchers are approved to try the technology out on four more patients. Ultimately, the system will only be workable commercially with a wireless neural implant, or an EEG headset – like the Emotiv, Insight or Neurosky headsets. The technology is also being considered for stroke rehabilitation as well, another area where EEG and mind-control technology are being considered as a mean to recovery.

From restoring ambulatory ability through mind-controlled limbs and neurosensing devices to rehabilitating stroke victims with mind-reading software, the future is fast shaping up to be a place where no injuries are permanent and physical disabilities and neurological impairments are a thing of the past. I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say that watching these technologies emerge makes it an exciting time to be alive!

And be sure to check out this video from the OSUW Medical Center that shows Ian Burkhart and the Batelle team testing the Neurobridge:


Sources: cnet.com, fastcoexist.com

World Cup 2014 to Open with Exoskeleton Kick

WorldCup_610x343This summer, the World Cup 2014 will be taking place in Sao Paulo, Brazil; an event that is sure to be a media circus. And to kick off this circus (no pun!), FIFA has decided to do something rather special. This will consist of a paralyzed teenager making the ceremonial first kick, courtesy of an exoskeleton provided by The Walk Again Project. In addition to opening the games, this even will be the first time that a mind-controlled prosthetic will ever be used in a sporting event.

Though the teenager in question remains to be chosen, the event is scheduled and the exoskeleton tested and ready. Using metal braces that were tested on monkeys, the exoskeleton relies on a series of wireless electrodes attached to the head that collect brainwaves, which then signal the suit to move. The braces are also stabilized by gyroscopes and powered by a battery carried by the kicker in a backpack.

ReWalk1The Walk Again Project, a nonprofit collaboration dedicated to producing full-body mind-controlled prosthetics, represents a collaboration between such academic institutions as Duke University, the Technical University of Munich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil, the University of California at Davis, the University of Kentucky, the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment facility.

Miguel Nicolelis, the Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University who is leading the Walk Again Project’s efforts to create the robotic suit, had this to say about the planned event:

We want to galvanize people’s imaginations. With enough political will and investment, we could make wheelchairs obsolete.

miguelnicolelis_secom508x339Nicolelis is a pioneer in the field of mind-controlled prosthetics. In the 1990s, he helped build the first mind-controlled arm, which rats learned to manipulate so they could get a drink of water, simply by thinking about doing so. In that project, an electronic chip was embedded in the part of each rodent’s brain that controls voluntary muscle movements. Rows of wires that stuck out from the chip picked up electrical impulses generated by brain cells and relayed those signals to a computer.

Researchers studied the signals as the rats pushed a lever to guide the arm that gave them water, and they saw groups of neurons firing at different rates as the rats moved the lever in different directions. An algorithm was developed to decipher the patterns, discern the animal’s intention at any given moment and send commands from the brain directly to the arm instead of to the lever. Eventually, the rats could move the arm without pushing the lever at all.

neuronsUsing similar brain-machine interfaces, Nicolelis and his colleagues learned to translate the neural signals in primate brains. In 2000, they reported that an owl monkey connected to the Internet had controlled an arm located 600 miles away. Eight years later, the team described a rhesus monkey that was able to dictate the pace of a robot jogging on a treadmill half a world away in Japan.

Small groups of neurons, it seems, are surprisingly capable of communicating with digital devices. Individual cells learn to communicate with computer algorithms more effectively over time by changing their firing patterns, as revealed in a study of a mouse’s brain published last year in Nature. This capacity for extensive plasticity and the ability to learn comes in quite handy when designing a prosthetic.

exoskeleton_FIFA2014German-made sensors will relay a feeling of pressure when each foot touches the ground. And months of training on a virtual-reality simulator will have prepared the teenager — selected from a pool of 10 candidates — to do all this using a device that translates thoughts into actions. In an interview with New Scientist, the lead robotic engineer Gordon Cheng of the Technical University of Munich gave some indication of how the suit works

The vibrations can replicate the sensation of touching the ground, rolling off the toe and kicking off again. There’s so much detail in this, it’s phenomenal.

Capitalizing on that adaptability, several human quadriplegics have received implanted brain chips in FDA-approved clinical trials. One of the first was Matt Nagle, who lost the use of his extremities after being stabbed in the spine. With the aid of electrodes placed in his brain at Brown University in 2004, he learned to raise, lower and drop a piece of hard candy using a primitive jointed arm not connected to his body.

woman-robotic-arm_650x366In a widely publicized demonstration of that system, now owned by a company called BrainGate, a 58-year-old woman paralyzed by a stroke sipped a cup of coffee last year using a five-fingered robotic arm not attached to her body. Despite the slickness of the presentation, however, the woman actually had little control over the arm. Despite it being aesthetically pleasing, the design was a little rudimentary.

However, things have come a long way since then thanks to ongoing research, development and testing. In Nicolelis’s lab, monkeys showed the ability to feel virtual objects displayed on a computer screen when areas of the brain associated with the sense of touch were stimulated. The blueprints for next summer’s soccer exoskeleton include similar sensors that will provide an artificial skin for its human wearer, thus ensuring that they can both move the device and receive sensory feedback.

Walk-Again-Project-Kick-Ball-537x358With the world watching, Nicolelis hopes not only that his “bionic teenager” will be able to feel the ball but also that disabled people everywhere will feel a sense of hope. And why wouldn’t they? In this single, incredibly high-profile event, millions of people around the world who struggle with disabilities will witness something truly inspirational. A paralyzed teenager will rise from a wheelchair, kicks the World Cup ball, and bring countless millions to their feet.

And you’re waiting until June of 2014 to see this momentous event for yourselves, be sure to check out this promotional video from The Walk Again Project, featuring interviews with the people who made it happen and showcasing the exoskeleton itself:


Sources: news.cnet.com, washingtonpost.com, virtualreality.duke.edu

 

Top Stories of 2012

biotech_alienAs Dec. 31st fast approaches, I find myself thinking about New Years resolutions. And part of that is taking stock on what’s been accomplished in the past year. For me, one of those resolutions was to stay current and share all the new and exciting news from the field of science and tech all my followers people; to the best of my abilities, that is.

In keeping with this, I wanted to create a list of the most important developments of the last year. Many sites have produced a top 10, top 12, even a top 7, list of what they thought the most significant accomplishments were. Well, I wanted to do one of my own! Opinion varies as to what the biggest leaps and bounds were over the course of the last year, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get my say in. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time reading about them, so here’s my comprehensive list of the greatest inventions, developments and advances made during 2012.

I think you’ll all agree, the list packed with stories that are intriguing, awe-inspiring, and even a little scary! Here are the top 12, as selected by me, in alphabetical order:

3D Printing:
cartilage1As far as tech trends go, this one has been in the works for some time. However, 2012 will be remembered as the year that 3D printing truly became a reality. From tree-dimensional models to consumer products to even guns, 3D printers have been featured in the news many times over for their potential and frightening abilities.

However, one of the greatest potential uses will be in the field of artificial cartilage, organs, and even food. As the technology is refined and expands to the field of organic molecules, just about anything can and will be synthesized, leading to an era where scarcity is… well, scarce!

Bionic Implants:
mindcontrolledprostheticPerhaps the years biggest achievement came in the form of bionic prosthetics, artificial limbs which are calibrated to respond to the nerve impulses of the user. As a result, amputees, veterans and accident victims are able to receive artificial limbs that act like the real thing.

The most notable case was Zak Vawter who scaled the 103 flights of Chicago’s Willis Tower using an artificial leg. In addition, two men in Britain had their sight restored after undergoing the first ever case of retinal surgery where bionic implants were placed in their eyes.

Brain Implants:
digital-mind1In September of 2012, scientists grafted an implant onto the brain of Chimpanzee, enhancing its brain power by ten percent. This consisted of an electrode array that was attached to the cerebral cortex of several monkey subjects, researchers were able to restore and even improve their decision-making abilities.

The implications for possible therapies is far-reaching, such as with brain injuries and cognitive disorders. But additionally, it also heralds the beginning of an era where human beings will be able to enhance their intelligence, recall, and memory retention.

Commercial Space Flight:
skylonThough not yet fully realized, 2012 was a big year in terms of commercial space flight. For example, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic announced the first successful fully-loaded “glide test” of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket craft that will be taking passengers into low orbit as soon as all the kinks are worked out of the design.

In addition, Reaction Engines announced a breakthrough with the design of their hypersonic engine, which they claim will be fitted to their proposed spaceship – the Skylon. Capable of achieving speeds of up to Mach 5, this new craft is expected to be able to take off from conventional airfields, propel itself into low orbit, and deliver supplies to the ISS and make commercial trips around the world. No telling when either company will be conducting its first real suborbital flights, but the clock is ticking down!

Curiosity Rover:
Curiosity_selfportrait
One of the years biggest announcement was the deployment of the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface. Since it landed, the rover has provided a constant stream of scientific updates and news on the Red Planet. Though the Mars Science Team did not find the “earthshaking” proof organic molecules, it did make a number of important discoveries.

Amongst them was solid evidence that Mars was once home to large rivers and bodies of water. Furthermore, the x-ray lab on board the rover conducted studies on several rock and soil samples, determining what the chemical and mineral composition of Mars surface is.

Faster-Than-Light Travel:
alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewIn the course of speaking at the 100 Year Starship, scientists at NASA began working on the first FTL travel system ever. Long considered to be the stuff of science fiction, physicist Harold White announced that not only is the math sound, but that his team at NASA had actually started working on it.

Relying on the concept of the Alcubierre Drive, the system involves expanding and contracting space time around the ship, allowing it to move faster than the speed of light without violating the Law of Relativity.

Geo-engineering:
converted PNM file
In October, the world’s first – and illegal – act of geo-engineering took place off Canada’s West Coast. The product of a “rogue geohacker” named Russ George, who was backed by a private company, the project involved the dumping of around 100 tonnes of oron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean. This technique, known as ocean fertilization, was meant to stimulate the growth of algae which metabolize carbon and produce oxygen.

The experiment, which is in violation of two United Nations moratoria, outraged many environmental, legal, and civic groups, many of whom hail from Haida Gwaii, the traditional territory of the Haida nation, who had enlisted by George as part of a proposed “salmon enhancement project”. Though illegal and abortive, the act was the first in what may very well become a series of geoengineering efforts which will be performed the world over in order to stay the progress of Climate Change.

Google’s Project Glass:
google_glasses2012 was also the year that augmented reality became… well, a reality (oh dear, another bad pun). Back in April, Google unveiled its latest concept device for wireless and portable computing, known as Project Glass. Combining an active display matrix, a wireless internet connection and a pair of shades, Google managed to create a device that looks like something straight out of cyberpunk novel.

HIV and Flu Vaccines:
HIV-budding-ColorWhen it comes to diseases, HIV and the Flu have two things in common. Until 2012, both were considered incurable, but sometime in the near future, both could be entirely preventable. In what could be the greatest medical breakthroughs in history, 2012 saw scientists and researchers experiment with antibodies that have been known to fight off HIV and the flu, and to good effect.

In the former case, this involved using a new process known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP), an inversion of the traditional vaccination method, where antibodies were introduced to mice. After allowing the antibodies to reproduce, researchers at Caltec found that the mice were able to fight off large quantities of the virus. In the latter, researchers at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany used a new RNA-based vaccine that appeared to be able to fight off multiple strains of flu, not just the latest mutation.

Taken together, these vaccines could bring an end to a common, but potentially deadly ailment, and signal the end of the plague of the 20th century. In addition, this could be the first in a long series of developments which effectively brings all known diseases under our control.

Medical Implants:
enhancement2012 also saw the culmination of several breakthroughs in terms of biomedical research. In addition to the world’s first medimachine, there were also breakthroughs in terms of dissolving electronics, subdermal implants that dispense drugs, and health monitoring patches.

Little wonder then that Cambridge University announced the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk to evaluate future technologies, or that Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. With all the potential for enhancement, it could be just a matter of time before non-medical enhancements are a reality.

Mind-controlled prostheses:
woman-robotic-arm_650x366Researchers at BrainGate created a brain-machine interface that allows users to control an external device with their minds. The first person to use this revolutionary new system was Cathy Hutchinson, a stroke victim who has been paralyzed from the neck down for 15 years, who used the robotic arm to drink a cup of coffee.

This news, combined with other advances in terms of bionic prostheses, could signal the end of disability as we know it. Henceforth, people with severe injuries, amputations and strokes could find themselves able to make full recoveries, albeit through the use of robotic limbs.

Self-driving cars:
googlecar2012 marked an important year as three states (California, Nevada, and Florida) made autonomous vehicles legal. Self-driving cars, once perfected and produced en masse, will help with traffic congestion and significantly reduce the chance of auto accidents through the use of GPS, radar, and other technologies.

*               *               *

All in all, it’s been an exciting year. And with all that’s been accomplished, the future is certainly looking a lot more interesting and even frightening. What is clear is that predictions made for some time now are becoming realizable, including replication, a cure for all known diseases, advanced robotics, implants, cybernetics, and even post-humanism. Regardless of where one sits on these developments, be you pro, con, or neutral, I think we can all agree that it is an exciting time to be alive!

Happy New Year to all, and here’s hoping 2013 proves just as interesting, and hopefully a lot more peaceful and sound. And may we ALL find ourselves able to keep our New Years resolutions and build upon all we’ve accomplished so far. And of course, with all the potential for medical and technological enhancements that are coming, I sincerely hope we can find ways to improve ourselves on a personal level too!