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ALS patient uses brain-computer interface to type responses to Stanford researchers' questions

New Record: Paralyzed Man Uses Brain Implant to Type Eight Words Per Minute

“What did you enjoy the most about your trip to the Grand Canyon?” the Stanford researchers asked. 

In response, a cursor floated across a computer screen displaying a keyboard and confidently picked out one letter at a time. The woman controlling the cursor didn’t have a mouse under her hand, though. She’s paralyzed due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also called Lou Gehrig’s disease) and can’t move her hands. Instead, she steered the cursor using a chip implanted in her brain.

“I enjoyed the beauty,” she typed. 

The woman was one of three participants in a study, published today in the journal eLife, that broke new ground in the use of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) by people with paralysis. The woman who took the Grand Canyon trip demonstrated remarkable facility with a “free typing” task in which she answered questions however she chose. Another participant, a 64-year-old man paralyzed by a spinal cord injury, set a new record for speed in a “copy typing” task. Copying sentences like “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” he typed at a relatively blistering rate of eight words per minute. 

That’s four times as fast as the previous world’s best, says Stanford neurosurgeon Jaimie Henderson, a senior member of the research team. Further improvements to the user interface—including the kind of auto-complete software that’s standard on smartphones—should boost performance dramatically.  

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drawing of mouse with optogentics probe

One-Step Optogenetics for Hacking the Nervous System

Engineers have taken one of biotech’s hottest tools—optogenetics—and made it better. The 12-year-old technique, which enables scientists to control brain cells with light, typically requires a multi-step process and several surgeries on animal models. Polina Anikeeva at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and her colleagues came up with an engineering solution that combines those steps into one, and improves the function of the device. The group described their invention today in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Optogenetics enables researchers to hack into the body’s electrical system with far more precision than traditional electrical stimulation. The technique involves genetically altering specific neurons so that they can be turned on or off with a simple flash of light.

The tool is useful for figuring out the functions of neural circuits—fire up a select few brain cells and see how the body responds. A mouse might run faster or eat more or become aggressive, depending on which neurons were manipulated.

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A young child

AI Predicts Autism From Infant Brain Scans

Twenty-two years ago, researchers first reported that adolescents with autism spectrum disorder had increased brain volume. During the intervening years, studies of younger and younger children showed that this brain “overgrowth” occurs in childhood.

Now, a team at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has detected brain growth changes linked to autism in children as young as 6 months old. And it piqued our interest because a deep-learning algorithm was able to use that data to predict whether a child at high-risk of autism would be diagnosed with the disorder at 24 months.

The algorithm correctly predicted the eventual diagnosis in high-risk children with 81 percent accuracy and 88 percent sensitivity. That’s pretty damn good compared with behavioral questionnaires, which yield information that leads to early autism diagnoses (at around 12 months old) that are just 50 percent accurate.

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A baby lying in a crib is wearing one green cotton sock with embedded electronics.

How Mobile Health Apps and Wearables Could Actually Make People Sicker

A recent journal article about wearable tech for infants pulls no punches: “There is no evidence that consumer infant physiologic monitors are life-saving, and there is potential for harm if parents choose to use them,” it states.

While the article is an opinion piece, it carries the weight of authority: It was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was authored by two pediatricians and an expert from the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rigorous evaluation of medical procedures and devices. 

The authors call out specific products that are marketed to nervous parents, including the $250 Owlet Smart Sock, which monitors a sleeping baby’s pulse and blood oxygen levels. There’s no need to monitor healthy infants so closely, the authors say, and doing so will likely cause false alarms and fear.

This analysis has implications for the larger field of mobile health. It’s been less than a decade since the “quantified self” craze began, but fitness trackers, wearable gadgets, and health-related apps have proliferated; for diabetes management alone, consumers can choose from more than 1500 apps.

Some experts believe that these products will provide useful streams of health data that will empower consumers to make better decisions and live healthier lives; for example, one Stanford professor credits his wearables for early detection of his Lyme disease.

But others say the flood of information can have the opposite effect by overwhelming consumers with information that may not be accurate or useful. To probe further, IEEE Spectrum spoke with David Jamison, coauthor of the JAMA article and executive director of ECRI Institute’s health devices group, as well as Priyanka Shah, a project officer in his group.

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An illustration of a male torso clad in the Medtronic CardioInsight vest

Medtronic's CardioInsight Electrode Vest Maps Heart's Electrical System

Medical device developer Medtronic has commercialized a 252-electrode vest that can map the heart’s electrical system. The device could help doctors pinpoint the locations of electrical malfunctions in the heart that cause irregular heartbeats.

Doctors began using the system commercially last week after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November approved the vest, Medtronic announced.

Irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias, are caused by electrical malfunctions of the heart. The malfunctions can bring on a range of problems, from the disconcerting sensation of a fast, irregular heartbeat, to a fatal cardiac arrest.

In order to treat an arrhythmia, doctors must pinpoint the location of the electrical malfunction. That typically involves inserting a catheter with an electrode tip into a blood vessel in the groin, and snaking it up to the heart. By touching the tip to different places on the heart doctors can create spatial and electrical maps.

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X-ray credit: Jenny Haupt, Cody Cleveland and Phillip Nadeau.

Powering Ingestible Electronics With the Fluids in Your Gut

Ingestible electronics that travel through the gut within pill-like capsules can now capture video, release drugs, and record temperature, pH, and other vital signs. However, most current ingestible electronics rely on conventional batteries, many of which require toxic materials. But a new study finds that swallowable electronics could be powered for days inside the body by harvesting energy from chemical reactions within the stomach.

Scientists have explored other techniques for powering ingestible electronics, but many of these methods are not well suited to these devices. One technique they tried was harvesting energy from the body’s heat. But they couldn’t generate enough of a thermal gradient in the gut to make this work. And because these capsules cannot easily be anchored to a moving surface, it has been challenging to harvest energy from vibrations. Wireless power transfer has also been difficult to do because of the way the capsules move around inside the gut. 

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Photo: Caltech/Science Robotics

Heat-Sensitive Skin Could Let Prosthetics Feel Warmth

Artificial skin as heat-sensitive as pit vipers—the most sensitive heat detectors in nature—could one day help prosthetics and robot limbs detect subtle changes in temperature, a new study finds.

Many research groups around the world are developing flexible electronic skin for prosthetic limbs that can help replicate the sensory capabilities of real skin. When it comes to temperature, existing flexible sensors recognize changes of less than one-tenth of a degree C, but only within temperature ranges of less than 5 degrees C. Other flexible devices can work in wider temperature ranges, but are many times less sensitive.

Now scientists have developed an electronic skin that is sensitive to changes as little as one-hundredth of a degree C over a 45-degree range, from 5 °C to 50 °C. This sensitivity is comparable to that of pit vipers such as rattlesnakes, the researchers say. In comparison, human skin is only sensitive to changes of about two-hundredths of a degree C, the scientists add.

Video: Caltech

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A child with cataracts

Ophthalmologists vs. AI: It's a Tie

Last week, we reported on an algorithm that recognizes skin cancer as well as the world’s best dermatologists. That computer program was trained using 130,000 images from more than 2,000 diseases. It, like most artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs, relied on big data.

Now, a team in China has demonstrated that AI also has the potential to aid medical diagnoses in situations where there is limited high-quality data available. An AI program trained with just 410 images of congenital cataracts (a rare disease that causes irreversible blindness), plus 476 images of disease-free eyes performed as well as doctors in diagnosing the condition, recognizing its severity, and offering a treatment suggestion.

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Photo shows a woman wearing a headband with embedded electrodes

Treating Depression With tDCS: Startup Ybrain Aims for the Mainstream

A doctor’s prescription for clinical depression could one day sound like this: In the comfort of your own home, slip on a brain-zapping headband a few times per week. For 20 minutes, send a tiny stream of electricity through your brain. 

The treatment would be delivered by a user-friendly type of brain stimulation called tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation), which has recently become a hot topic in neuroscience research. Now it’s beginning to make the transition from lab to doctor’s office. And a South Korean startup called Ybrain thinks its stylish tDCS headband, specifically designed to treat depression, will be the product that brings tDCS into the clinical mainstream.

Ybrain founder and CEO Kiwon Lee made his pitch earlier this month at the NYC Neuromodulation conference, where doctors and researchers working on the cutting edge of brain stimulation met to compare notes and chart the field’s progress. When his turn came at the podium, Lee predicted that his device will receive regulatory approval in Korea this March. He also laid out his very optimistic game plan for worldwide market domination.

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Computer might be able to look at a lesion and tell whether it's cancerous or not.

Computer Diagnoses Skin Cancers

Researchers have developed an algorithm that recognizes skin cancer in photos about as well as dermatologists do. So says a study published today in Nature. The algorithm, developed by a group at Stanford University, is not the first automated system for recognizing skin lesions, but it’s likely the most robust, the researchers say.

“This is like when a computer first beat the world champion chess player,” says Sancy Leachman, a dermatologist and researcher at Oregon Health & Science University who was not involved in the study. Stanford’s program beat dermatologists—essentially the world champions of skin cancer diagnostics, she says. “That’s pretty cool.” 

The study highlights the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to enable anyone with a smartphone to have access to health care. “We’re working towards extending the reach of care outside of the clinic,” says Andre Esteva, the electrical engineering PhD student at Stanford who led the study.

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The Human OS

IEEE Spectrum’s biomedical blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.

Senior Associate Editor
Eliza Strickland
Emily Waltz
Megan Scudellari

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