Although it may seem to be in the ancient past, there was a time when text messaging and social media were not yet in existence. Now, scientists and engineers have developed a brain-computer interface that allows individuals to utilize digital communication through their thoughts alone. Imagine sending a text message without ever lifting a finger. The interface has especially significant implications for assisting those with motor disabilities.
According to a recent study out of Stanford University, researchers have developed technology to enable patients with nervous system complications or injuries to send phone messages using only their thoughts. The process works by implanting a small sensor onto the surface of the motor cortex, a region of the brain controlling voluntary movements. The participants were then asked to stare at a screen displaying letters and imagine moving their limbs to select specific characters.
A cursor accurately typed their choices on the screen, permitting them to text at a rate of 12 to 40 characters per minute.
Who and How Will It Help?
Stanford’s innovation may prove groundbreaking for those suffering from a movement or neurodegenerative disorders, such as paralysis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), or others.
According to Medscape, a web resource widely used by physicians, the suicide rate among those with MS is double compared to the general population. Individuals with ALS or paralysis are also at a heightened risk of ending their lives through nonmedical means. The findings by the Stanford University team may aid in decreasing the suicide risk of those with such diseases by offering them the ability to converse with others and receive emotional support independently.
The study’s engineer, Krishna Shenoy, explains that the software could also encompass wider applications, including allowing those with motor disabilities to control prosthetic limbs or close lights and doors through the power of their minds. Some readers may wonder if the process could apply to healthy individuals as well. Although the invention may seem to be the work of sci-fi novels, the process is highly invasive and, therefore, unlikely to be applied to the general population.
How it Works
Particular cells in the brain called neurons initiate bodily responses through electrical or chemical means. During the Stanford University experiment, the sensors implanted on the cortical surfaces of the participants’ brains detected the electrical impulses of their neurons and sent the information to a computer interface, which in essence “read” the minds of patients. The scientists refer to this technology as an intracortical brain-computer interface (iBCI).
The process differs from the computer used by the famous theoretical physicist and ALS patient Stephen Hawking, who controls a cursor through cheek movements to select characters on the screen, which also enables speech, as noted on his website. As his condition has progressed, the software has permitted Hawking to stay attuned with the scientific community and socialize with the outside world. Such developments have enabled the physicist and many others to express intellect and feelings that they may otherwise be unable to be communicated.
Although still in early stages, the potentially groundbreaking innovation by the Stanford team is offering hope to millions suffering from motor and neurodegenerative abnormalities. The freedom and independence the technology provides may also aid in decreasing the suicide rate among those with ALS, MS, or paralysis.
Could the Stanford discovery personally aid your family and friends?