A study published in the journal eLife describes three participants that broke new ground in the use of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) by people with paralysis. One of the participants, a 64-year-old man paralyzed by a spinal cord injury, “set a new record for speed in a ‘copy typing’ task,” reports IEEE Spectrum. “Copying sentences like ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,’ he typed at a relatively blistering rate of eight words per minute.” From the report: This experimental gear is far from being ready for clinical use: To send data from their implanted brain chips, the participants wear head-mounted components with wires that connect to the computer. But Henderson’s team, part of the multiuniversity BrainGate consortium, is contributing to the development of devices that can be used by people in their everyday lives, not just in the lab. “All our research is based on helping people with disabilities,” Henderson tells IEEE Spectrum. Here’s how the system works: The tiny implant, about the size of a baby aspirin, is inserted into the motor cortex, the part of the brain responsible for voluntary movement. The implant’s array of electrodes record electrical signals from neurons that “fire” as the person thinks of making a motion like moving their right hand — even if they’re paralyzed and can’t actually move it. The BrainGate decoding software interprets the signal and converts it into a command for the computer cursor. Interestingly, the system worked best when the researchers customized it for each participant. To train the decoder, each person would imagine a series of different movements (like moving their whole right arm or wiggling their left thumb) while the researchers looked at the data coming from the electrodes and tried to find the most obvious and reliable signal. Each participant ended up imagining a different movement to control the cursor. The woman with ALS imagined moving her index finger and thumb to control the cursor’s left-right and up-down motions. Henderson says that after a while, she didn’t have to think about moving the two digits independently. “When she became facile with this, she said it wasn’t anything conscious; she felt like she was controlling a joystick,” he says. The man with the spinal cord injury imagined moving his whole arm as if he were sliding a puck across a table. “Each participant settled on control modality that worked best,” Henderson says. You can watch a video about the study here.
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