Scientists continue to make progress toward fully functioning prosthetic limbs with the ability to be moved by thoughts alone. While a complete mind-machine interface is yet to be developed, neuroscientists in Jacksonville, Florida at the Mayo Clinic have made great strides toward such a goal. The National Science Foundation has sponsored the ongoing study on brain-computer interfacing at the clinic.
A recent EurekAlert article reported on the details of the scientists’ findings, which were presented at the American Epilepsy Society’s 2009 Annual Meeting. The team of researchers aims at one day developing a fully integrated interface between the human brain and a computer in order to help spinal cord injury patients walk and make use of prosthetic limbs.
Former efforts at creating a brain-computer interface were attempted using electroencephalography (EEG), which makes use of electrodes placed on patients’ scalps. Dr. Jerry Shih, the lead researcher in the Mayo study, speculated that it would be possible to further bridge the brain-computer gap by making use of electrodes placed on the surface of the brain.
The novel technique, electrocorticography (ECoG), allows for direct monitoring of electrical activity in the brain, while EEG picks up signals that have been diffused through the thick bones of the skull. The use of ECoG made it possible for two epilepsy patients to be able to make a letter appear on a computer screen by picking it out of a matrix of letters’”using only the power of their thoughts.
Dr. Shih reported a nearly 100% rate of accuracy in the patients’ ability to make the correct letters appear using their thoughts, by way of the ECoG electrodes. Although the results were startling and exciting, the technique still requires a cratiotomy, which means making an incision through the skull to insert the ECoG electrodes.
The EurekAlert article quoted Dr. Shih saying, ‘Our goal is to find a way to effectively and consistently use a patient’s brain waves to perform certain tasks.’
Further research on ECoG and mind-computer interfacing will necessitate the development of software to calibrate brain waves with specific actions. It will also likely require the development of an implantable computer. Dr. Shih added, ‘These patients would have to use a computer to interpret their brain waves, but these devices are getting so small, there is a possibility that they could be implanted at some point.’ ‘¦ ‘We find our progress so far to be very encouraging.’
In only a few short years, developments such as these could amount to a practical cure for paralysis and other severe brain and spinal cord injuries.
Punsky, Kevin. (December 6, 2009). ‘Mayo Clinic researchers show brain waves can ‘˜write’ on a computer in early tests.’ Retrieved December 8, 2009 from the EurekAlert website:http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-12/mc-mcr120409.php