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Human Trials Planned For Brain Computer Interface

Trials at UPMC will test two different BCI approaches in humans with spinal cord injuries

2 min read
Human Trials Planned For Brain Computer Interface

It's time once more to check in on the pioneers of brain computer interface technology.

The last time the world heard from Andrew Schwartz and his colleagues at the Motorlab, he was teaching monkeys how to pluck marshmallow treats with a thought-driven robotic arm. This year, those lovable macaques will finally step aside and give the humans a try.

With funding from DARPA and the NIH, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, led by Dr. Schwartz, will soon begin clinical trials on two different techniques for plugging into human brain power—one which collects neural impulses with an array of electrodes placed on the surface of the brain, and another that implants the electrodes directly into the tissue.

The first approach (ECoG, or electrocorticography) records a signal from a large population of neurons, while the second (SUR, or single unit recording) listens in on single cells. Both data sets, however, will be filtered into usable information that can then drive complex tasks with computers and robotic limbs.

But this takes training on both the human and machine ends of the equation. The algorithms in the machine must first learn the patterns of brain activity that occur when the human is either imagining or physically carrying out a task. As the system becomes familiar with the neural commands, the patient's control over it becomes more seamless.

The researchers took a preliminary look at how this training works by temporarily implanting one of the arrays in a patient undergoing open brain surgery as treatment for severe epilepsy. A video of the results shows a woman trying to play a computer game by imagining the moves. When she loses control of the ball on the screen, the patient throws out a physical cue—raising her am—to help the computer refine its estimation of her intentions.

Michael Boninger, the lead physician on the UPMC trials, says that training happens very fast. "You can see some changes in a matter of a session or two," he says.

He hopes to recruit three people for each trail, all with spinal cord injuries—which shouldn't be terribly hard, given the enthusiasm Boninger has encountered from people with severe disabilities.

"We get a ton of excitement from people we talk to," he says. "It has the potential to be the single most enabling technology for people with disabilities."

You can look for the experiments to be up and running this summer.

The Conversation (0)
Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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