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MIND-CONTROLLED: Linking brain and computer may soon lead to practical prosthetics for

daily life
Author(s): Susan Gaidos
Source: Science News, Vol. 180, No. 1 (JULY 2, 2011), pp. 26-29
Published by: Society for Science & the Public
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41332545 .
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gamescanbe mesmerizeven
fora rhesusmonkey.
ing,
Whichmayexplain,in part,
Video why 6-year-oldJasper has
been sittingtransfixed
at a computer
screenin a Washington
lab
University
fornearlyan hour,hisgazetrainedon a
smallredball.Amoreinteresting
reason
forJasper'squietdemeanoris thatheis
theballata moving
hurling
targetusing
his
just thoughts.
Jasperis not the only monkeyto
controlobjectswithhis mind.At the
Universityof Pittsburgh,a pair of
macaques manipulated a thoughtcontrolledsyntheticarmto graband
eat marshmallows.
The monkeysthen
- no
workedthearmtoturna doorknob
musclepowerrequired.
In anothercase,
a monkey
inNorthCarolinatransmitted
itsthoughts
aroundtheworldto
halfway
seta Japaneserobotinmotion.
Nowis timeto lethumansgiveit a
serioustry.In a seriesofclinicaltrials,
scientists
arepreparing
totakethoughtcontrolled technologies,known as
brain-computerinterfaces,to those
whomightbenefitmost.The trialsare
a major step in realizingwhatmany
scientistssayis an ambitious,
butfully
obtainable,goal- to restoremobility
and independenceto peoplewhohave
lost the use oftheirmusclesthrough
brainorspinalcordinjury.
Overthe nextfewyears,paralyzed
patientswill attemptto learnhowto
maneuvervirtualhands and robotic
armsto reach,push,graspor eat. As
thetrialsprogress,
researchers
hopeto
trainuserstoperform
comincreasingly
plexmovements.
we're goingforsome"Ultimately,
thingthatpatientscoulduse to carry
out dailytasks:pullingzippers,buttoningbuttons,tyingshoesand things
likethat,"saysneurobiologist
Andrew
Schwartz
oftheUniversity
ofPittsburgh.
Key to pursuingthis achievement
is the factthatbrain cells emittiny 0
electricalsignalsjust beforethebody |
an action.Overthelast two
performs
havefigured
outhow |
decades,scientists
touse a smallelectrode,
intheformofa |
chipimplantedin thebrain,to pickup
www.sciencenews.org

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degradethesignal.Butthetechniqueis
patterns
the
whose
cords
have
been
withspecificmovements.
When sent
onlywayto getclearsignalsfrom
People
spinal
so somescientists
think
to trans- damagedso that theycan no longer singleneurons,
to a computerprogrammed
latethem,thesamesignalsthatwould deliversignalstothelimbsarestillable is thewaytogo.
toproducethenecessary To date,fivehumanpatientsin the
dictatemoveordinarily
withfully
mentofa livinglimbcan
planningsignalsin the UnitedStateshavebeenfitted
The
electrode
brain.It is thesesignals implanted
be harnessedto control
arrays. patients
thattheresearchers
aim werepartofa clinicaltrialinvestigating
a computercursoror a
to captureand decode, a device called BrainGate,developed
roboticarm.
have
makingthissciencefic- by CyberkineticsNeurotechnology
Already,people
tion
visiona reality.
some
SystemsInc.,a companycofounded
by
simple
completed
neuroscientist
John
Most
brain-controlled
tasks,
brain-computer BrownUniversity
interfacesgatherinfor- Donoghue.The implantedarrayssend
spellingoutwordson a
mation from specific neuralsignalsthroughtinywiresto a
turncomputerscreen,
fromthe
neurons in the motor smallpedestalthatprotrudes
on
a
TV
or
ing
opening
lab
movewhere
e-mail. In a fewcases,
tests,the
cortex,
patient'sscalp. During
via
can
be
connected
cablesto
ments
are
initiated
and
their
have
used
pedestal
patients
thatdecodesthebrain'ssigcarriedout.Byimplant- a computer
mindsto perform
basic
information.
Wirelesselectrodes
ing arraysof hair-thin nalsintomeaningful
reaching movements
a
woman
whosuffered
One
electrodes
into
with a roboticarm or
shown)may
patient,
(prototype
directly
a
stroke
in
her
brain
stem
scientists
can
a
disemallow
the
and
close
one
brain,
paralyzed
leavingher
day
open
immobilized
from
the
neck
downand
record
bodiedhand.
to
control
clear,strongsigpatients easily
her
unable
to
has
used
This
has
But the techniques
device.
nals.
a prosthetic
speak,
implant
approach
some downsides: The in a lab settingfornearlyfiveyears.In
have been clunky,with
and methodrequiresthatthe electrodes theAprilJournalofNeuralEngineerthatis toocumbersome
equipment
be surgicallyimplanteddeep intothe ing,Donoghueand histeamdocument
to
at
home
withcomplicated operate
and howafternearlythreeyearsofuse,the
theriskofinfection
outassistance.Andtoday'sdevicesare brain,carrying
oftenpainfully
slowand requirelong creatingan immuneresponsethatcan device continuedto workwithlittle
aroundtheelectrodes
and signaldegradation.
periodsof training.In upcomingtri- causescarring
willtesttwodifferent
als,researchers
havebeenabletoperform
thehelpofbrain-computer
interfaces,
patients
approachesto plug into the human Allwiredup With
formonitoring
theelectrical
basicmind-controlled
tasksinthelab.Current
firings
designs
brainpowerneeded to bettercontrol of
inthebrain,
consist
ofarrays
ofelectrodes
wired
toa pedestal
neurons
implanted
single
externaldevices.Byrelyingon single thatsticks
that
decodes
isconnected
toa computer
outoftheskull.
use,thepedestal
During
arm.
neuronfirings,researchersare try- recorded
brain
tomove
a cursor
onthescreen,
orevena robotic
signals
ingto makemovementmoreprecise.
Othersare takinga newer,moresurface approachto get aroundthe fact
thatsignalsfromthebrainsometimes
weakenovertime.Andwhilethesetrials
about
playout,someteamsarethinking
sendingsignalsfromtheoutsideworld
backtothebrain.

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theyfoundthatsomecells
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startfir
is ingbefore
ananimalactually
moves.Sci*2
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entistslaterdiscovered
thattheseareas
areactivebecausethebrainplansmovewww.sciencenews.org

NEWSI 27
2,2011 I SCIENCE
July

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FEATURE I MIND-CONTROLLED
"Ifshewasusingthissystem
inevery- 100microelectrodes,
makingitpossible Scratchingthe surface
to
it
would
be
reliable
to
a
certain
record
from
about
200
neuronsatthe In recentyears,researchers
havefound
daylife,
same
time.
The
willremainin waysto captureelectricalsignalsfrom
extent,"
Donoghuesays.
implants
areworking
hardto thepatientsforoneyear.
thebrainwithouthavingto pokeanyStill,researchers
makeimplantable
devicesthatdo more.
scientists
to
Ultimately,
hope implant thingintothebraintissue.
BrainGate'sroboticarm could reach patientswithwirelessdevicesthatcan
DanielMoranofWashington
Univerand graspan object,butit didn'thave beam brain signals out to controla sityin St.Louisis amongthescientists
themaneuverability
ofa typicalarm.A prostheticwithouttheneed forwires tapping
intothesesignals.Theapproach
humanarmusesdozensofindependent or cables. The system
is basedon electrocorticomusclesto moveup-downor left-rightwouldbe on all thetime, "The better we
orECoG,a method
graphy,
andcontrolthepositionsoftheshoul- availabletopatientswhen
used bydoctorsto detect
at
get
moving
electricalactivityin the
der,elbow,forearmand wrist.Hands theywantit.Suchwireless
arms out to
also requiremanyindependent
muscle systemscould someday
brain.Makingan incision
things, the
or"degreesoffreedom,"
to help amputees in addiin thescalpand removing
movements,
hold
and
tion
to
a portionofthe skullare
pinch,grasp,
squeeze.
paralyzedpatients, more we need
At the Universityof Pittsburgh, says StanfordUniversity to work on the
still required; surgeons
Schwartz
ispreparing
totestinpeoplea engineerKrishnaShenoy.
thenplace the electrode
sensors to allow
armwith17degrees
thought-controlled
Shenoyand colleagues
gridsdirectlyon the surof freedom.The armwill have a full havebeenbuilding
wireless us to feel those
face of the dura mater,a
elbow systemsthatcan transmit
thinleatherlike
membrane
rangeofmotionin theshoulder,
things."
andwrist,witha handcapableofcurl- signals fromsingle neuthebrain.
covering
KRISHNA
SHENOY
From this location,
ingarounda coffeemugorpicking
up a ronsto nearbyreceivers.
smallitemsuchas a pencil.
Researchershave used the devicesto abouttwocentimeters
belowtheskull,
"Thiswillallowustostarttrying
todo monitor
thebrainsofmonkeys
moving theelectrodescan'trecordfromsingle
dexterous
ona tread- neurons.Theycan,however
tasks,thingsthathavenever aroundtheircagesorwalking
pickupthe
beenattempted
Schwartzsays. mill.In April,Shenoy'steampresented electricalactivity
ofgroupsofneurons.
before,"
haveuseda versionof detailsonthestudiesinCancn,Mexico, Theseneuralassemblies- thousands
of
Already,
monkeys
thisremotearm,as Schwartzreported attheInternational
IEEE EMBSConfer- neuronspergroup- havesynchronized
inFebruary
attheannualmeeting
ofthe enceonNeuralEngineering.
activitythatproduceswhatare called
American
Association
fortheAdvance- Further
workis neededto makesuch localfieldpotentials,
what
broadcasting
mentofScience.
featspracticalforpeople,Shenoysays. thebrainis doing.
In orderto getthebrainsignalsto Scientistsknow how to extractthe
Withtraining,
theneuralgroupscan
do all of this,Schwartz'sgroupwill necessarysignalsfromthe brainsof adjustthemselves
to signalforspecific
recordfirings
fromtwicethenumber paralyzed patients,but haven't yet movements.
Forexample,patientscan
of neuronsas used in the BrainGate workedout thedetailsofhowto pick be taughtto movea cursoron a screen
studies.Threepatientswill have two outparticular
signalsfromthebrainsof in a specificdirectionas theythink
Tic Tac-sized arraysimplantedinto amputees,
whichmight
bebusydirecting aboutwiggling
theirfingers.
Asthebrain
theirbrains.Each arraywill contain othermovements.
adapts,subjectsnolongerhavetoimagine wigglingdigits;theysimplythink
Surfacewaves Somebrain-computer
devices
tocapture
theactivity
andtheneuralgroupconofgroups
ofneu- "cursorright"
attempt
rons
ofelectrodes
onthesurface
ofthebrain,
rather
than
electrodes. nectedtotheirfingers
using
grids
implanted
deeply
willautomatically
Thecircles
onthebrains
oftwopatients
below
show
electrode
locations.
Solidcircles
indicate
a
its
intention.
signal
motor
electrical
while
X-ed
circles
indicate
a
stimulation,
response
during
response.
sensory
Moranfirsttestedthisapproachfor
themotorcortex
extracting
signalsfrom
in 2004 on a handfulofpatientsbeing
monitored
forepilepticseizures.Doc-

torshad placedtheECoG gridson the CO


brainstofigure
outwhichareas uS
patients'
werecausingseizures.After
:=>
connecting cc
the sensorsto a computer,the scien- z
tistspickeduponthesignalsandtaught
patientsto use thsignalsto movecur- <>
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sorsandplaycomputer
games.

<
Sincetheseearlyexperiments,
Moran's co
28 I SCIENCE
NEWSI July
2,2011

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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

www.sciencenews.org

grouphasfoundwaysto spacetheelectrodeson a gridto optimizethesignals


from
theneurons
formoreprecisemovewithJustin
ment.Together
Williamsat
theUniversity
ofWisconsin-Madison,
Moranbuilta smallelectrode
arraytofit
overthebrain'ssensorimotor
cortex,a
bothwithmovement
regionconcerned
and theperceptionofoutsidestimuli.
oneofthreemonkeys
inMoras
Jasper,
lab,is nowusingthenewarrayto play
videogamesandreachforandgraspvirtual objectson a computerscreen,all
without
a muscle.
moving
Thissummer,
theresearchers
willget
CursorcontrolPatients
a cursor
moving
theirfirstlookat howthedeviceper- with
their
minds
can'talways
keepitdirectly
inhumanpatientswhoneedit.A ontarget.
forms
Thecolored
linesaboveshow
actual
taken
toanintended
paths
target
flexible
under cursor
thin,
gridwillbeimplanted
Scientists
arefinding
color).
(corresponding
theskullofa paralyzedpatientat the ways
toaccount
for
thedifferences
between
ofPittsburgh.
Researchers intent
andactual
movement.
University
willtrainthepatienttousemindcontrol
to carryoutmovements
on a computer coffee,the question becomes, how
screen.Overthe nextthreeyears,as exactly
dotheyholdontothecup?While
are madeto thedevice, a Styrofoam
improvements
cup willcrumbleundera
future
patientsmaybe ableto perform clenching
grip,a cupofanykindwillslip
morecomplicatedtasksand controla froma looseone.
"Forprosthetics,
thebetterwe getat
simpleroboticarm.Moransayshisgoal
is todevelopan implantable
devicethat moving
armsouttothings,
themorewe
willlastyears- up to 10- makingthe needtoworkon thesensorsto allowus
choicetohavethesurgery
tofeelthosethings,"
practical.
Shenoysays.
"Whatwe need is a typeofimplant
Feelingrequiresthe abilityto turn
thatwillbe 95 to 99 percenteffective thesystemaroundandputsignalsback
and thatis goingto lastfora decade," intothebrain.Someinvestigators
have
he says.
triedputting
smallamountsofelectric
While some scientistsdoubt that currentintothe system.Shenoysays
ECoGsignalscanprovideenoughinfor- theproblemwiththatapproachis that
mationforfinemovements,
suchasturn- sendingelectricity
intothebrainactito vatesmanycellsat once,ratherthana
inga keyina lock,othersareworking
attainmoredetailedinformation
from targetcell.
thesignals.Lastyear,biomedicalengi"Puttingelectriccurrentinto the
neer SoumyadiptaAcharyaof Johns brain is like goinginto a classroom
in Baltimoreand whereeachstudentin theclassroomis
HopkinsUniversity
his
team
decoded
forpredicting a different
neuron,andshouting
signals
loudly

themovement

ofindividualfingersas whenyouwantedto speakto onlyone

Thefindings, student,"
he says.
theyflexedandextended.
G published
in
the
2010
Journal
withKarlDeisseroth
ofStan(
August
of
Working

: Neural
showthatECoG, ford,
is usingan approachcalled
,
LU
Engineering
Shenoy

can probably optogenetics


to putlight-sensitive
withsome refinements,
prothedexterity
neededtooperatea teinsintotargetneuronsin monkeys
: provide
switch
orturna doorknob,
;p. 18).Whensensorsatthe
Acharya
says. (SN:1/30/10
end ofa prosthetic
handmakecontact
A
feel
for
the
a
future
with
coffee
a
(
mug,
signalwouldcause
<X

As paralyzed patients learn to use lightsourcesto shineon thoseneurons.

roboticarmstoreachfortheirmorning Thoughthelightbathesmanyneurons,
www.sciencenews.org

onlytheneuronsthathavebeentagged
wouldrespond.
The approach,outlinedintheMarch
issueofNatureNeuroscience
, couldbe
the"holygrail"forwriting
information
backintobrain,Shenoysays,becauseit
cells
providesa wayto speakto specific
andcanbeturned
onandoffveryrapidly.
Shenoy'sgroupis notalonein developingwaysto putsignalsbackintothe
brain.Duke University
neurobiologist
tofinda way
MiguelNicolelisisworking
to sendsignalsaboutthetextureofthe
screentothe
objectseenon a computer
informapartofthebrainwheresensory
tionisprocessed.Suchsignalswillallow
usersofthought-controlled
armsorlegs
totouchandfeelthingsas theyinteract
withtheworld.
Nicolelis'labis alsocreating
a robotic
"exoskeleton"
thatwillbewornlikea suit
so thatpeoplewhohavelostcontrolof
alltheirlimbscanbecomemobileagain.
thatsendsinformation
Havinga system
back to the brainwill allow patients
to use an exoskeletonto stepontothe
- feedgroundand sense its firmness
back thas needed for an ordinary
walking
experience.
As thetechnology
becomessaferand
itmaysomedaybe as commonsmaller,
place as havinga Bluetoothstuckin
yourear,Moransays.Andwhenthat
timecomes,eventhenondisabledwill
latchontobraininterfaces
togainmentalcontrolovertheircomputer,
iPador
othercommunication
and entertainmentdevices.Already,
one companyin
Japanhasdesigned"catears"thatclaim
to displaya person'semotionsbyreadingbrainsignalsfromthesurfaceofthe
be next.
scalp.Householddevicesmight
"Atsomepoint,you'llbe abletowalk
intoyourhouseand turnon thelights
withoutflicking
a switch,"
Moransays.
"Allyouhavetodoisthink'lights
on'and
willdo therest."
technology
Exploremore
M.Nicolelis.
Boundaries:
Beyond
TheNewNeuroscience
ofConnecting
- andHowit
Brainswith
Machines
Wili
ChangeOurLives.TimesBooks,
2011.
NEWSI 29
2,2011 I SCIENCE
July

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