I’ve previously written a couple of blog posts on tech advancements aimed at aiding movement inhibited individuals. This is another one of those, focused singularly on Brain-Machine Interface (BMI, also called Brain-Computer Interface, BCI), which we’ve touched on before. The reason I’m putting a good deal of focus on these types of topics—aside from the badassness of it—is because of my own physical issues.
You see kiddies, when I was the tender age of 16, I had a horseback riding accident that left me with a rotated hip. That one injury has since plagued me with low-back movement issues that are painful, sometimes debilitating, and decrease quality of life. On top of that, I have pretty bad knee issues—which also stem from the original rotated hip problem. I’ve had three epidurals, two cortisone shots at the knee joint, and so much physical therapy I count it as my second job. The one thing I want to do, physically, compounds all the wounds.
I just want to run. I love to run. I love the way it makes me feel before, during, and after. But, even jogging ¼ mile kills my knees and stresses my back. So, what must it be like for someone who wants to walk, or even just stand? Life is a lot of things, but movement plays such a significant role in life that it’s something we think about lightly. You know, until we can’t do it anymore.
So, while robotics, neuroscience, and advancements in technology are blow-your-mind-like-a-big-league-hotdog awesome, combining the three to improve quality of life for thousands—millions?—of people is blow-your-mind-in-the-archaic-sense-of-the-word awesome. So, without further ado, let’s dig into the real meat of this blog.
Allowing Locked-In ALS Patients to Communicate
I know what ALS is, but I had never previously heard of the “Locked-In” ALS condition. Thanks to my ignorance, you’ll all get a bit of definition time. You’re welcome. ALS patients suffering from the Locked-In condition are considered to be in the severe stage of ALS, wherein they are conscious and have brain function, but are unable to move. At all.
Science is working toward giving such patients as these a way to communicate again. According to the article Locked-In ALS Patients Answer Yes or No Questions with Wearable fNIRS Device, published earlier this month in Neuroscience News:
Using a wearable system developed by SUNY Downstate Medical Center researcher Dr. Randall Barbour, a team of investigators led by Professor Niels Birbaumer at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Switzerland and University of Tübingen in Germany were able to measure the brain’s hemodynamic response to a series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, thus allowing these patients to communicate.
While other tech has been used for this goal—EEG, fMRI, etc.—fNIRS (that’s functional near infrared spectroscopic) imaging has proved to be the breakthrough tech needed. But, what does this mean? Well, this is potentially the first step in bettering quality of life for Locked-In ALS patients. Communication, like movement, is a substantial part of life. It’s why we have language areas in the brain, Dave! But, this isn’t the only advance being made with BMI. Next up…
BMI Opens Doors to Paralysis Patients
In Bruce Goldman’s article, Brain-Computer Interface Advance Allows Fast, Accurate Typing by People with Paralysis, published by Stanford Medicine, we get another look into BMI advancement. I fully anticipate all the readers here will visit the original article, which means I’m not listing all the scientists involved. Instead, I’m going to refer to them as “The Team.” You’re welcome. Again.
In this study, The Team worked with three paralysis patients, using an intracordical BMI (or in the case of this study, the term BCI is preferred) to send brain signals to a computer. Goldman explains that:
The investigational system used in the study, an intracortical brain-computer interface called the BrainGate Neural Interface System, represents the newest generation of BCIs […] An intracortical BCI uses a tiny silicon chip, just over one-sixth of an inch square, from which protrude 100 electrodes that penetrate the brain to about the thickness of a quarter and tap into the electrical activity of individual nerve cells in the motor cortex.
These are the nerve cells that send the signals the brain would give off during specific movement tasks (the right hand moving and clicking a computer mouse, for instance). The signals are decoded and converted in real time by a special algorithm, which then allows the patients to control a cursor on the screen in front of them to type out words at a higher speed and accuracy than seen in previous methods. According to Chethan Pandarinath, one of the lead authors of the research report, “We’re achieving communication rates that many people with arm and hand paralysis would find useful. That’s a critical step for making devices that could be suitable for real-world use.”
This is not only exciting, it’s groundbreaking for movement inhibited individuals. Going forward, this tech could help with general household tasks we take for granted—opening doors, changing the thermostat, controlling the TV—and who knows what else?—just by using your mind. This gives movement inhibited individuals access to and a modicum of control over their surroundings. That’s seriously impressive.
Krishna Shenoy, an integral part of The Team—and whose lab pioneered the algorithm for the BMI interface—expects that around five years from now, they may be looking at a “self-calibrating, fully-implanted wireless system [that] can be used without caregiver assistance, has no cosmetic impact, and can be used around the clock.”
Improving on Improvements
Now, we head over to San Diego State University (SDSU) to learn about new electrodes with increased durability that last longer and transmit clearer signals than current electrodes. This news comes to us from the article Big Improvement to Brain-Computer Interface, published by ScienceDaily with source material provided by SDSU. Here’s a rundown of the study:
The Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE)—a collaboration of San Diego State University with the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—is working on an implantable brain chip that can record neural electrical signals and transmit them to receivers in the limb, bypassing [spinal cord] damage and restoring movement.
The improvement here is the material out of which the chip is made. Current “state-of-the-art” electrodes are made from thin-film platinum, but researchers with CSNE are utilizing glassy carbon. According to the article, “This material is about 10 times smoother than granular thin-film platinum, meaning it corrodes less easily under electrical stimulation and lasts much longer than platinum or other metal electrodes.” These electrodes are being used both along the surface of and inside the brain for more complete—single neuron and cluster—data.
A doctoral grad student in the lab is even taking things one step further. According to the article:
Mieko Hirabayashi is exploring a slightly different application of this technology. She’s working with rats to find out whether precisely calibrated electrical stimulation can cause new neural growth within the spinal cord. The hope is that this stimulation could encourage new neural cells to grow and replace damaged spinal cord tissue in humans. The new glassy carbon electrodes will allow her to stimulate, read the electrical signals of, and detect the presence of neurotransmitters in the spinal cord better than ever before.
Every year, new advances in tech are being made. But, seeing tech advancements geared toward improving quality of life for movement inhibited individuals is… well… awesome.