Research enables paralyzed to perform motor skills using thought

U. prof.'s study shows progress for quadriplegics

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Professor of Neuroscience John Donoghue and his colleagues have bridged the gap between computers and the human brain, enabling paralyzed patients to use the power of thought to complete tasks like directing a computer mouse across a screen and even closing and unclosing the fingers of a prosthetic arm.

The preliminary results, released in the July 13 issue of Nature, stem from nine months of testing and implicate tiny sensors called neuromotor prostheses that are placed directly on the surface of a quadriplegic’s motor cortex, the part of the brain that governs movement. These brain-computer interfaces keep track of neurons as they fire impulses – sometimes as many as 200 a second – and send the impulses to a computer, which turns them into actions. The researchers’ subject, a 25-year-old man with spinal cord injuries, could perform each of the tasks while conversing normally.

Donoghue, whose team of almost 30 people began work in 2004, co-invented the sensor with Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Their study was funded by Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc., which Brown faculty and students founded in 2001 with the Brown University Research Foundation under a licensing agreement.

Certain problems in the brain-computer interfacing technology still need to be dealt with – one of the sensors inexplicably broke after six months, and the hardware itself is extremely bulky – but researchers believe it’s just a matter of time before the kinks are worked out. Conducting similar tests on two monkeys, scientists at Stanford University increased the speed of neural signal processing skills in monkeys by implanting sensors. The processors with implants, working four times faster than non-implanted brain wave processors, would allow paralyzed people to type 15 words per minute.

Hundreds of thousands of people suffer from some form of motor impairment and could stand to gain from this research.

“Though much work remains to be done,” Hochberg told Scientific American, “hopefully one day I’ll be able to say: ‘We have a technology that will allow you to move again.'”

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