Neuroscience: Brain-computer interfaces

The latest developments in brain-computer interface technology present a potential way to replace or restore lost motor function in paralysed humans. They are reported in two papers in Nature this week.


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VOL.442 NO.7099 DATED 13 JULY 2006

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Neuroscience: Brain-computer interfaces (pp 164-171; 195-198; N&V)

The latest developments in brain-computer interface technology present a potential way to replace or restore lost motor function in paralysed humans. They are reported in two papers in Nature this week.

In one paper, John Donoghue and colleagues demonstrate that a patient paralysed by a spinal cord injury can move a cursor on a screen simply by thinking about it. Although the patient has no movement in his limbs, he is able to perform a number of tasks, including opening email and operating his television, even while engaging in conversation; he can also open and close a prosthetic hand and perform basic actions with a multi-jointed robotic arm.

This is made possible by a device known as a neuromotor prosthesis (NMP), consisting of a sensor implanted in the patient’s brain in an area known as motor cortex. The sensor comprises an array of electrodes that record neural activity in an area typically involved in arm movement. They find that activity persists here despite the patient being injured three years earlier; it was previously unknown whether or not this would be the case. Information recorded by the electrodes is decoded and processed by a computer, allowing neural firing patterns to be translated into movement commands that can be used to drive computer cursors or prosthetic devices.

The study shows that, in contrast to non-invasive brain-computer interface devices that sample brain activity from the scalp without direct access to neurons, the NMP can work first time in response to imagined movement. The team propose that efforts towards a more clinically viable human NMP are justified. A major issue is that this still requires a lot of equipment; the devices will need to be a lot smaller and automated.

In a related paper, Krishna Shenoy and colleagues address the system performance of NMPs. They show that a fast and accurate system, capable of communicating information at a rate approximately equivalent to typing fifteen words per minute on a keyboard, is achievable.

The authors recorded neural activity in two monkeys (Macaca mulatta) when they reached to different targets on a screen. By studying this brain activity the authors were able to predict the intended location of movements before they were made. They could then predict the intended location of imagined movements - when no real movements were made - and, by measuring the accuracy of their predictions, optimize the efficiency of the system.

Although the team recognize that the performance of NMPs is restricted by factors such as the number of different target locations presented, they argue that it still exceeds that of non-invasive brain-computer interface devices, increasing their potential clinical viability.


John Donoghue (Brown University, Providence, RI, USA) Author paper [1]

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Krishna Shenoy (Stanford University, CA, USA) Author paper [2]

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Published: 13 Jul 2006

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