Researchers Report Great Progress in Wireless Brain-Computer Interfaces

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Mind-controlled devices seem like something we might only experience in Utopia or in the world of science-fiction. However, the technology is closer in time than one might expect. As often is the case within neuroscience, the basic research groups of universities have paved the way for the technology. Let’s take a look at a recent accomplishment related to the matter.

Imagine a world where you could turn on the TV, adjust the heat of the stove or control just about anything within the Internet of Things as swift as a thought. Now, turning on the TV is not especially difficult in these times – but for some people it would mean the world to possess this ability. There are actually quite a few paralyzed patients out there that would be tremendously uplifted just by being given the ability to conduct simple tasks on their own.

With this in mind, there is utterly uplifting news coming from Brown University in terms of technological progress of wireless brain-computer interfaces. The research has been ongoing for over a decade with incremental progress and now the university, together with Blackrock Microsystems, has been able to present an impressive device for the paralyzed patients.

MIT Technology Review writes that with this technology “a few paralyzed patients could soon be using a wireless brain-computer interface able to stream their thought commands as quickly as a home Internet connection”. This is of course a deliberate exaggeration, but the developments are still exciting. Actually, the technology could be tested on volunteers already this year if the system receives clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The wireless device, which at least could give us an indication of where we are heading in the future, relies on a brain implant to receive its radio thought commands. The device itself is attached to a person’s skull. So, as conveyed by Medgadget, the transmitter actually remains outside the body, connected via a small port to the implanted neurosensor. The receiver has to be kept within a few steps of the transmitter to obtain a strong signal, but this limitation is not an issue in most situations.

According to the previously mentioned source MIT Technology Review, a major limit to previous brain-to-computer devices has been that patients can only use the interface between brain and prosthetics (used in prior cases)  with the help of a crew of laboratory assistants. The brain signals are collected through a cable screwed into a port on their skull, then fed along wires to a bulky rack of signal processors. The new interface is many times smaller; the device weighs only 41 grams and is 5 centimeters in diameter, and (as previously mentioned) utilizes radio to beam it a distance of a few meters to a receiver of another device.

The brain-computer interface is capable of transmitting its readings to the external receiver at up to 200 megabits per second, and when the researchers have been testing it on animals they have demonstrated that the device is capable of continuous high-rate data transmission using a single AA battery for more than 48 hours.

It is still unclear exactly what task can be accomplished during the first trials with the technology on the volunteers, but one task is probably controlling a computer mouse with the mind. This feature only would undoubtedly help the patients execute a variety of tasks, but probably the usage of the cursor is only the tip of an iceberg when we step into the future. As far as we have come now, the test results from animals indicate that the scientists could, within the proximate future, actually help paralyzed people lead more autonomous and fulfilling lives in a number of ways – it almost comes down to a matter of creativity.

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