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

The Future is Here: MMI Electronic Tattoos!

patchIt’s known as Mind-Machine-Interface, the ability to interface and control machines using only your mind. And thanks to a number of dedicated researchers in various fields, it’s no longer the stuff of science fiction. With mind-controlled prosthetics, bionic limbs, and the growing field of machine-enabled telepathy, the day may soon come when people can interface, access and control machinery with just a few thoughts.

But of course, that raises all kinds of concerns about invasive procedures, whether surgery will be needed in order to implant devices into the human brain that can translate brainwaves into commands. Alternately, where non-invasive means are involved, it can take some time to calibrate the machinery to respond to the user’s nerve impulses. As those awful infomercials say, “there has be a better way!”

patch_headAs it turns out, electrical engineer Todd Coleman and his team at the University of California at San Diego has been working on a way to use wireless flexible electronics that one can apply on the forehead just like temporary tattoos. Building on the emerging field of biomedical electronics, these tattoos will be able to read brainwaves and allow a person to control electronic devices without the need for surgery or permanent implants.

The devices are less than 100 microns thick, the average diameter of a human hair, and consist of circuitry embedded in a layer or rubbery polyester that allow them to stretch, bend and wrinkle. The devices can detect electrical signals linked with brain waves and incorporate solar cells for power and antennas that allow them to communicate wirelessly or receive energy.

patch_breakdownOf course, other elements can be added as well, like thermal sensors to monitor skin temperature and light detectors to analyze blood oxygen levels, making it both a health monitoring patch and a fully-integrated control device. Combined with health patches that are being developed for use internally, an entire health network can be created that allows for every aspect of a patients health to monitored in real-time, anticipating and predicting health problems before they flare up.

Currently, Coleman and his colleagues are pursuing the application of using these patches to monitor premature babies to detect the onset of seizures that can lead to epilepsy or brain development problems. The devices are also being commercialized for use as consumer, digital health, and medical device. But the potential for their use is staggering, even alarming.

droneFor example, these devices can also be put on other parts of the body, such as the throat. When people think about talking, their throat muscles move even if they do not speak, a phenomenon known as subvocalization. Electronic tattoos placed on the throat could therefore behave as subvocal microphones through which people could communicate silently and wirelessly to each other.

However, a more alarming application is in the industrial and defense field, which is being pursued by the startup MC10 in Cambridge, Mass. In the course of their research, Coleman and his colleagues found that individuals who were hooked up to a computer through large caps studded with electrodes were able to remotely control airplanes and a UAV over cornfields in Illinois. Such is not possible with these tattoos at present, but Coleman admits that he and his colleagues are “working on it”.

telepathyBut even more alarming than this is the long term implications of what this could mean for us as a species, which is that electronics could one-day enable wireless peer-to-peer brain communication – aka. machine-enabled telepathy. With devices that can read and transmit brainwaves and vocal information, it would no longer be necessary for people to use radios, phones, email, or any other means of communication to talk to one another.

Simply tune in, subvocalize or think what you want to convey – and boom! instant messaging and perfected! Lord knows the art of diplomacy might suffer, and we can forget about sarcasm, tact, or shades of meaning. Society may very well breakdown or people will just have to grow thicker skin as everyone is forced to communicate what they really think to each other!

Source: txchnologist.com