Monkey Think, Monkey Do – Breakthroughs in Wireless Brain-Computer Interfaces


The recent decade has seen major advances in artificial intelligence and neuro-technology. The emergence of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs (see our previous article on BCIs) brings to the forefront an exciting possibility that could enable people with neurological injury or disease to restore communication, independence and mobility.

Until recently, these brain-computer interactions required cables and wired connections to engage with external devices. However, a recent clinical trial by researchers at BrainGate consortium, demonstrated that these interactions can now be done completely wirelessly. In this early clinical trial, two participants, both paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries, were able to wirelessly point, click and type on a computer, simply by thinking about doing so.

This was possible through the use of a small device, about 5 cm long weighing 40 grams. It contains the entire skull and replaces the traditional wires. This device is implanted into the skull surgically, where it sits on the user’s head and directly reads brain signals and interprets the user’s commands. Similarly to WiFi or Bluetooth technologies, the device then communicates with external computers through various “through-the-air” algorithms.

A BrainGate clinical trial participant with the device implemented atop his skull. (Credit: BrainGate)

How does it work?
Briefly, an array of 200 specially designed electrodes are implanted into the brain’s motor cortex. These electrodes pick up neuronal signals within the region of the brain associated with motor activity. Mathematical models and computer algorithms are subsequently used to decode these signals, interpreting the intent indicated by the user’s brain. Decoded information from the electrodes is then relayed back to a connected wireless transmitter that sits atop the user’s head. Eventually, the desired commands interpreted by the computer are executed, allowing the user to complete their intended activity, such as typing on a tablet computer, controlling a robotic arm or even playing video games.

How can this be useful?
This breakthrough is an important step toward giving people who have lost their ability to move, their autonomy back. John Simeral, an Assistant Professor of Engineering at Brown university and a member of BrainGate said that “people no longer need to be physically tethered to equipment, which opens up new possibilities in terms of how the system can be used”. Leigh Hochberg, a Critical Care Neurologist and the Director of Rehabilitation Research and Development Center for Neurorestoration and Neurotechnology, shares Simeral’s views. Highlighting the importance of this breakthrough, making humans unencumbered to cables, she notes, “this system [is] able to look at brain activity, at home, over long periods in a way that was nearly impossible before”.

Other significant breakthroughs are happening at Neuralink. For instance, Elon Musk’s latest project. Earlier this month, Neuralink shared a demonstration of a macaque monkey named Pager, playing video games simply with his mind. Pager had two neuralink chips implanted in his brain. Similarly to the technology used in the BrainGate clinical trial, these chips then picked up neuronal signals in Pager’s brain, and proceeded to decode them into commands and movements.

While giving people the ability to control computerized devices purely with their mind may sound like science-fiction, these breakthroughs are pushing the frontiers of BCIs for human use. The possibilities of which are not far into the future. Breakthroughs such as these open up exciting new possibilities in neuroscience research and patient care, while also providing crucial insights into human consciousness and next generation neurotechnologies.

Here are some videos you can watch:

Pager, a nine year old Macaque, plays MindPong with his Neuralink implanted chip.
Credit: Neuralink Youtube

Original source:

BrainGate clinical trial: J. D. Simeral et al., “Home Use of a Percutaneous Wireless Intracortical Brain-Computer Interface by Individuals With Tetraplegia,” in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, doi: 10.1109/TBME.2021.3069119.

Featured photo: Pexels free domain

Edited by Malavika

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