Tuesday, November 16, 2010
SAN DIEGO People who are paralyzed may soon be able to move a computer cursor, operate robotic arms or walk again, just by thinking about it. New technology called Brain Machine Interface is making it possible.
Brain Machine Interface or BMI is a lot like using a wireless printer. Only, the computer that sends the message to an external device is your brain.
It works like this — electrodes placed on the scalp read the energy level or voltage of simple thoughts — such as “move my left arm.” A computer then translates those brain waves or energy into action through a robotic arm, leg or even a synchronized computer cursor.
Emerging BMI technology was originally designed to help people who are paralyzed, and have no other way to communicate, said Virginia De Sa, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD.
“You want to build a system that can read their brain signals, interpret them, then activate a cursor or robotic arm or some very simple interface with the world,” De Sa said.
Brainwave technology is already being used in games, like Mindflex. The game’s goal is to use your thoughts alone to drop a small ball into a basket. The player wears a hat lined with electrodes that send brain waves to power a fan on the game board, which in turns controls the direction of the ball.
Game advances have helped clinical trials progress for more serious matters like movement of robotic arms and legs, said De Sa.
“As we develop applications for patients then it will make it much easier for patients to use these systems, like these simple dry electrodes in a baseball cap,” she said.
In addition to research on paralysis, brain machine interface is being tested to help patients with Parkinson’s disease. For example, a full body vest, lined with special electrodes can help improve muscle control.
The vest works with nerve signals from the spinal cord and the brain. Doctor Miguel Nicolelus, professor of neuro biology at Duke University explains how it works.
“The whole body prosthetic and the Parkinson’s prosthetic device is a new device that uses the surface of the spinal cord to send signals to the brain to disrupt pathological activity that characterizes Parkinson’s disease. We envision going to clinical trials with this next year.”
BMI is also being studied for use in people with traumatic brain injury, stroke and visual problems.
But the most powerful application could be for people who are medically defined as “locked in.” That means, patients who have full brain function but cannot move any body part, not even their eyelids. Scientists hope BMI will be the key to connecting those patients to the outside world.
The latest research on Brain Machine Interface is being presented to 30,000 scientists this week attending the Society for Neuroscience convention in San Diego.