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:


The Future is Here: Brain Scanning for Pets!

Up_Doug_talkingdogRemember that scene in the Disney Pixar’s Up, where the old man and the little boy discover a dog who, thanks to a special collar, is able to talk to them? As it stands, that movie may have proven to be more prophetic than anyone would have thought. Thanks to improvements in wearable tech and affordable EEG monitors, it may finally be possible to read your dog’s mind and translate it into speech.

This is not the first case of commercial technology being used to monitor an animal’s habits. In recent years, wearable devices have been made available that an track the exercise, sleeping and eating patterns of a dog. But now, thanks to EEG devices like the “No More Woof”, it might be possible to track their thoughts, learning exactly what they think of that new couch, their new dry food, or the neighbors cat.

Woof_no_more1Tomas Mazzetti, the devices inventor, came up with the idea after he got as to what would happen if he strapped an off-the-shelf EEG machine to his mother’s Australian terrier. The observations that followed inspired the launch of a new project for Mazzetti and his team of fellow creatives at the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery.

This society – which represents a collaboration between the ad agency Studio Total and Swedish retailer MiCasa – has spawned a number of quirky products in the past. These include a rocking chair that charges your iPad, a weather forecasting lamp, and a levitating carpet for small-ish pets. No More Woof is the society’s latest work, and the team recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise more funding for research.

Woof_no_moreSo far, Mazzetti and his team have been able to determine three baseline dog emotions to translate into speech: sleepiness, agitation, and curiosity. In time, they hope to be able to decipher hunger pangs as processed by a dog’s brain, and come up with appropriate verbalizations for all:

When the dog is sleepy, we translate to ‘I’m tired.’ And if they are really agitated, we can translate to ‘I’m excited!’ And the most active brainwave is when the dog sees a human face and tries to recognize that face. Then the brain is working overtime.

Mazzetti and the NSID are also working on finding cheaper EEG machines, after which they can fine-tune the software. They’ve done tests on roughly 20 dogs, of which they found that short-haired pets were able to communicate with the EEG machine better. If NSID receives more funding, its researchers hope to have something for sale by March or April of next year.

Brainwave-Frequency-ChartBut while Mazzetti’s primary goal is to produce something commercially viable for use with dogs, he’s also hopeful that other research institutions or retailers will pick up where NSID leaves off. For example, what thoughts could be translated if someone were to put a more sophisticated version of No More Woof on the head of a primate, or another highly intelligent mammal?

Looking even further afield, Mazzetti has suggested that such a device could work both ways, translating human speech into concepts that a dog (or other animal) could understand. As we all know, dogs are very good at learning verbal commands, but again, the idea of two-way communication offers possibilities to convey complex messages with other, more highly-intelligent animals.

humpbackCould it be possible someday to communicate with simians without the need for sign language, to commune openly with dolphins and Orcas, or warn Humpbacks about the impending dangers of whalers and deep sea fishers? Perhaps, and it would certainly be to the benefit of all. Not only would we be able to get our mammalian brethren to better understand us, we might just learn something ourselves!

After all, the line that separates humanity from all other species is a rather fine one, and tends to blur to closer we inspect it. By being able to commune with other species in a way that can circumvent “language barriers”, we might just learn that we have more in common than we think, and aren’t such a big, screaming deal after all.

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the No More Woof in action:

And be sure to check out this clip from Up where Doug (the talking dog) is introduced, with hilarious results!

The Future is Here: The Insight Neuroheadset

Emotiv_insightPortable EEG devices have come a long way in recent years. From their humble beginnings as large, wire-studded contraptions that cost upwards of $10,000, they have now reached the point where they are small, portable, and affordable. What’s more, they are capable of not only reading brainwaves and interpreting brain activity, but turning that activity into real-time commands and controls.

Once such device is the Emotiv Insight, a neuroheadset that is being created with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and is now available for preorder. Designed by the same company that produced the EPOC, an earlier brain-computer interface (BCI) that was released in 2010, the Insight offers many improvements. Unlike its bulky predecessor, the new model is sleeker, lighter, uses five sensors instead of the EPOC’s fourteen and can be linked to your smartphone.

Emotiv_insight_EPOCIn addition, the Insight uses a new type of hydrophilic polymer sensor that absorbs moisture from the environment. Whereas the EPOC’s sensors required that the user first apply saline solution to their scalp, no extra applied moisture is necessary with this latest model. This is a boon for people who plan on using it repeatedly and don’t want to moisten their head with goo every time to do it.

The purpose behind the Insight and EPOC headsets is quite simple. According to Tan Le, the founder of Emotiv, the company’s long term aim is to take a clinical system (the EEG) from the lab into the real world and to democratize brain research. As already noted, older EEG machines were prohibitively expensive for smaller labs and amateur scientists and made it difficult to conduct brain research. Le and his colleagues hope to change that.

emotiv_insight1And it seems that they are destined to get their way. Coupled with similar devices from companies like Neurosky, the stage seems set for an age when brain monitoring and brain-computer interface research is something that is truly affordable – costing just a few hundred dollars instead of $10,000 – and allowing independent labs and skunkworks to contribute their own ideas and research to the fore.

As of September 16th, when the Kickstarter campaign officially closed, Emotiv surpassed its $1 million goal and raised a total of $1,643,117 for their device. Because of this, the company plans to upgrade the headset with a six-axis intertial sensor – to keep track of the user’s head movements, gait, tremor, gestures, etc. – a microSD card reader for added security, and a 3-axis magnetometer (i.e. a compass).

woman-robotic-arm_650x366In some cases, these new brain-to computer interfaces are making it possible for people with disabilities or debilitating illnesses to control robots and prosthetics that assist them with their activities, rehab therapy, or restore mobility. On a larger front, they are also being adapted for commercial use – gaming and interfacing with personal computers and devices – as well as potential medical science applications such as neurotherapy, neuromonitoring, and neurofeedback.

Much like a fitness tracker, these devices could let us know how we are sleeping, monitor our emotional state over time, and make recommendations based on comparative analyses. So in addition to their being a viable growth market in aiding people with disabilities, there is also the very real possibility that neuroheadsets will give people a new and exciting way to interface with their machinery and keep “mental records”.

Passwords are likely to replace passthoughts, people will be able to identify themselves with brain-activity records, and remote control will take on a whole new meaning! In addition, mental records could become part of our regular medical records and could even be called upon to be used as evidence when trying to demonstrate mental fitness or insanity at trials. Dick Wolf, call me already! I’m practically giving these ideas away!

And be sure to enjoy this video from Emotiv’s Kickstarter site:


Latest in 3D Printing: Invisibility Cloaks and Mind-Controlled Printers

anti-grav3d3-D printing continues to grow by leaps and bounds, being used to generate anything from components and models to complex machines and living tissues. And as the technology improves, the applications continue to grow and coalesce with developments made in other fields of scientific research. And in the last month alone, there have been a number of announcements that have both scared and impressed.

The first came from Duke University, where engineers have made yet another breakthrough. Seven years ago, they demonstrated their first “invisibility cloak” in a laboratory. Now, thanks to 3D printing, the fabrication process is a lot more accessible. And while invisibility might be a bit of a misnomer, that’s precisely what this object does as far as microwave radiation is concerned.

3dprinted_invisibilityThe object, which resembles a frisbee, has a large hole in the center, with seemingly random holes in the disc. The size, shape, and placement of these holes have actually been determined to disguise any object placed in the center hole from microwave beams, making it appear as though the object isn’t there. At present, the invention is limited in terms of practical use, but the design team believes this object has great potential.

According to Yaroslav Urzhumov, an assistant research professor in electrical and computer engineering at Duke, the technology could be used to create a polymer-based cloaking layer just 1 inch thick, wrapped around a much larger object. From this, they hope to eventually be able to create a material that will operate in higher wavelengths, including the visible light spectrum.

INVISIBILITY-CLOAKMeanwhile, the team’s creation of the disc using a 3-D printer means the technology is now much more accessible. Urzhumov went as far to say the he believes that anyone with access to a 3D printer will have the ability to create something similar at home. In time, this could mean anyone would have the ability to create a full-spectrum invisibility cloak at home too. Good news for anyone looking to hide from surveillance drones or cameras!

The second bit of news is even more impressive, and potentially frightening. It comes to us from Santiago Makerspace, a technology and design studio located in the heart of the Chilean capital where a designer created a 3D printed object using only their thoughts. The designer in question was George Laskowsky, Chief Technical Officer of Thinker Thing, a Chilean start-up that is developing a mind-controlled 3D printing system.

3dprinted_thought1The purpose behind Laskowsky’s work is simplification: while 3D printing has been growing and making design and fabrication easier and more accessible. However, mastering the design software is still a difficult challenge, especially for young children. That’s where Tinker Thing comes in, which seeks to develop the means to help children unleash their inner creativity.

Bryan Salt, CEO of Thinker Thing, expands on this, stating that there has not been enough work done on adapting the software for popular use. His company is looking to make it open and accessible so that it can be used to create items for one the largest markets for consumer products – children’s toys:

What is the point of these printers if my son cannot design his own toy? I realised that while there were a lot of people talking about the hardware of the printer no-one really seemed to be talking about how to actually use it.

3dprinted_toys1The software that makes this possible – Emotional Evolutionary Design (EED) – works by interpreting its users’ thoughts to make fantastical designs for toys and other objects. As part of the Monster Dreamer Project, Chilean children will get the first opportunity to try it out during tour of schools in the country at the end of this month.

Combined with Emotiv EPOCH (an EEG headset), a computer and a 3D printer, the children running Monster Dreamer will be presented with a series of different body shapes in bubbles. These will mutate randomly, with built-in rules preventing them from becoming too abstract. As different brain states such as excitement or boredom generate specific patterns of brain activity, the computer can identify the shapes associated with positive emotional responses.

3dprinted_toysThe favored shapes will grow bigger on the screen, while the others shrink. The biggest shapes are combined to generate a body part, and the process is repeated for different body parts until the monster is complete. The final result should be a unique 3D model that is ready for printing as a solid object. In essence, a child will create a tailor-made toy based solely on their emotional reactions to what they see.

Amazing the direction things are taking, isn’t it? One of the greatest appeals of 3D printing is the way which it is making technology and industry far more accessible and open to people.What began with items that would only interest engineers and design firms is now expanding to include just about any type of consumer product we can imagine, and comes with the ability to tailor make them at home, giving the average consumer immense control over the process.

future-city3Though an individual printer may still cost more than the average person is willing to spend, in time, they will likely come down in price and become like any other computer accessory – i.e. printers, faxes, modems, wireless routers. What’s more, we are likely to see a situation where communal labs, such as those found in a university or internet cafe, come equipped with one in the next few years.

In a way, it would not be a fevered dream to imagine that this could very well be the curtain raiser for a new age, an age when the means of production is literally in the hands of every person. If we are capable of printing food and buildings as well as toys and components, we would also be looking at an age when scarcity is a thing of the past and society is truly democratic and open. And all without the need for violence and forcible redistribution…

I can’t tell you how preferable it is to think about this stuff and not the current pace and effects of Climate Change. Sometimes, the only way to have hope for the future is to keep things positive and contemplate the happier possibilities. Here’s hoping smarter heads and brighter prospects prevail!