Converting Brain Signals into Action

According to Andrew Trounson, Patients with paralysis are successfully using computers and phones with their minds in the first human testing of a tiny device that interprets brain impulses. Philip O’Keefe, 60, suffers from motor neuron disease, a degenerative disease that causes paralysis by destroying neurons in the brain. His arms have lost a lot of strength and flexibility in the last six months, making it more difficult to use a computer or press keys. But he can now do with the power of thought what he couldn’t achieve with his hands.

A small device called the Stentrode, was implanted into a vein near the top of his head, where it can detect his brain impulses and wirelessly transfer them to a pc, which then interprets them into onscreen commands like click and drag, guided by eye-tracking software. To cure illness, doctors must be able to read the body’s electrical impulses. Continue reading Philip can now scour the web, type, monitor his online banking, write emails, and even perform some part-time employment updating client information with concentration and practise.

“You get the feeling you’re doing something from a science fiction story,” he explains.

Philip is one of just two persons in the world to use the Australian-developed Stentrode device in a clinical study, according to a study published recently in the peer-reviewed Journal of Neuro-Interventional Surgery. The Stentrode was implanted in Philip and another trial participant, 75-year-old MND sufferer Graham Felstead, in April 2020 and August 2019, respectively. Both of them are now utilising technology uncontrolled in their daily lives at home. They can conduct click-and-zoom actions, with an average click accuracy of over 90% and typing speeds of 14 to 20 letters per minute quicker if predictive text is enabled according to the research.

The Stentrode is made consisting of a microscopic scaffold that develops within a blood vessel to keep it in place, similar to how standard stents do to keep blood channels open; 16 tiny sensors are then attached on it to pick up brain activity. It measures 40 millimetres in length and 8 millimetres in diameter when extended. It was originally envisioned as a gadget that would allow paralysed people to regain mobility by controlling a robotic exoskeleton attached to their limbs with their thoughts. However, this is contingent on how robotic technology advances; in the meanwhile, the research has demonstrated that patients may successfully manage a personal computer using only two or three mental commands.

Being able to manage an exoskeleton is still our objective,” adds Associate Professor Oxley, “but the current gadget fulfils a shorter-term goal of restoring digitally-enabled function to a large number of people.

How your brain rhythms can reveal information about your personality? Reading brain signals to control external equipment isn’t a new concept; electroencephalogram (EEG) head caps with metal electrodes have been used to monitor brain activity for decades. Metal sensors implanted directly into the human brain through a hole in the skull can improve performance, and this is a topic of continuing research.

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