For the first time ever, scientists have managed to form a fully-functioning wireless link between a human brain and a computer – a potential breakthrough for individuals suffering from paralysis.
A team from the Brown University in Rhode Island, U.S. developed the BrainGate system, which allows users to wirelessly connect themselves to a computer with “single-neuron resolution” and “full broadband fidelity” via a simple transmitter device place atop the head.
In their findings published in the IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering journal, the team recorded the results of their tests of the system when used by two paralyzed men aged 35 and 63 suffering from spinal cord injuries.
The system works by connecting the transmitter devices on the users’ heads to “an electrode relay within the brain’s motor cortex using the same port used by wired systems”, and from there, users go on to point, click, and type on a tablet computer.
It’s wireless and it works!
During the tests, both participants were able to achieve typing speeds and point-and-click accuracy similar to wired systems, and were able to continuously use the system for up to 24 hours in their own homes.
— BrainGate Team (@BrainGateTeam) April 2, 2021
“The signals are recorded and transmitted with appropriately similar fidelity, which means we can use the same decoding algorithms we used with wired equipment,” said the study’s lead author John Simeral.
“The only difference is that people no longer need to be physically tethered to our equipment, which opens up new possibilities in terms of how the system can be used.”
This ease of use meant that the tests could be carried out by the participants’ caregivers, and allowed testing to continue despite restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With this system, we’re able to look at brain activity at home, over long periods, in a way that was nearly impossible before,” said Leigh Hochberg. “This will help us to design decoding algorithms that provide for the seamless, intuitive, and reliable restoration of communication and mobility for people with paralysis.”
This latest development is a significant step forward in the field of neural interfacing, whereby human brains are directly connected to computers. Lately, prominent names in the tech industry such as Facebook and Elon Musk have expressed interest in pursuing such technology.
In 2020, Musk’s neural interface startup Neuralink showed off a pig named Gertrude that had an implanted computer chip in its brain, and earlier in 2021, they successfully managed to implant a chip into a monkey’s brain which allowed it to play video games.
But with this study now proving that technology can be wielded wirelessly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if we see wearables enabling paralyzed or disabled individuals to communicate better with others around them.
And maybe after that, if the technology manages to become more mainstream, we might all be granted the use of computers without the need of peripherals such as mice and keyboards.