The current issue of Nature focuses on brain-machine interfaces. It includes an update on the paralyzed man who was fitted with a sensor chip designed to translate the electrical impulses from his thoughts into commands to a computer that controlled devices such as an artificial limb. The upshot of the report is that the experiment was a success. So, the developers of the system are talking about widening the scope of their efforts.
"A new study in Nature demonstrates a human with spinal injury manipulating a screen cursor and robotic devices by thought alone," the science magazine's editors write. The article in question, "Neuronal Ensemble Control of Prosthetic Devices by a Human with Tetraplegia," by a team from Brown University and several U.S. hospitals, profiles the use of neuromotor prostheses (NMPs) "to replace or restore lost motor functions in paralysed humans by routing movement-related signals from the brain, around damaged parts of the nervous system, to external effectors."
Using a system called BrainGate, from Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, of Foxborough, Mass., the medical scientists successfully implanted an NMP in the primary motor cortex of a tetraplegic young man. The NMP, a 96-microelectrode array, was able to translate mental impulses into decodable signals that enabled the patient to do such mundane tasks as opening e-mail, controlling a television, and even opening and closing a prosthetic hand and operating a robotic arm.
(We wrote about the case in this space originally in March.)
"These early results suggest that NMPs based upon intracortical neuronal ensemble spiking activity could provide a valuable new neurotechnology to restore independence for humans with paralysis," the scientists write.
"I see this as opening the door to a whole new kind of neurotechnology that will provide new opportunities for those who have paralysis or other movement disorders," lead researcher (and chief scientific officer of Cyberkinetics) John Donoghue said. He added that new technology is under development that would eliminate the wiring attached to a patient's head in favor of a wireless system that would be more suitable for practical applications.
The patient involved in the system's trial, Matthew Nagle, 26, who resides at the New England Sinai Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Stoughton, Mass., told The New York Times that he was happy he had volunteered for the experiment, which has since been discontinued in favor of other therapy. "It gave a lot of people hope," he said.