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Sci-Fi 'Brain' Restores Motion

While the practical devices could be years from fruition, Drachman told UPI that the science has surpassed fiction.
by Ed Susman
UPI Correspondent
Chicago (UPI) Oct 11, 2006
Researchers have pulled a page out of science fiction books, creating brain interfaces that have the potential to give sight to the blind, voice to the speechless and motion to the paralyzed.

In a presentation at Wednesday's closing session of the 131st annual meeting of the American Neurological Association in Chicago, John Donoghue, director of the Brain Science Department at Brown University, Providence, R.I., said four people have been surgically implanted with electrodes in the brain.

"We are on a path that will allow patients to participate in their own rehabilitation and perhaps learn to operate an exo-skeleton that is neurally controlled," said Donoghue, founder of Cyperkinetics Inc., developers of the BrainGate device he demonstrated Wednesday.

Presently, the patients -- all of whom have no mobility in their arms or legs -- to perform a variety of tasks.

-- One man was able to use his brain interface to command a prosthetic arm to pick up a piece of candy and hand it to a researcher.

-- A woman suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease, and unable to speak, use any of her limbs or even move her head, employed the a brain-computer interface to write sentences which were then spoken by the computer.

-- Patients were able to play a video game -- albeit much slower than a normal individual -- controlling the game curser through the brain implantation.

"This is like disciplined science fiction," Wallace Tourtellotte, professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told United Press International. "This is really amazing that you can collect neurons from the brain and make then move objects."

"These are really early days, however," said Daniel Drachman, professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore. "We are many years away from seeing a practical use of these devices.

"I think it will be best suited for those patients who become quadriplegic due to a high spinal cord injury. If we can find a way of getting signals from the brain to the rest of the body, that will be a major accomplishment."

In fact, Donoghue said that if his work will allow one of his patients to control a prosthetic arm so that the patient can feed himself - and "we can do this in the next five years, then we will have accomplished something."

The current system requires the patient to be hooked up to a medicine cart full of computers and wires and requires a technician to stand by to make sure all the devices are working.

The interface device, developed by Richard Normann, professor of bioengineering and ophthalmology at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, consists of an electrode array about 1/4-inch square. The chip holds 100 tiny needles so small and so sharp they don't cut tissue but actually displace it.

The tiny chip is tapped into place in the brain in the area of hand motor control by a special device created by Normann.

The incision in the skull is closed and the wires connecting the devices to the computer and threaded through a device that sits on the surface of the skull. Donoghue said the goal is to create a wireless interface so the small cap on the skull will not be necessary.

Normann, in another report to the neurologists, said the array may be able to be placed next to the optic nerve to help the blind see and specially-devised arrays may be able to allow for smooth muscle operation to allow a person confined to wheelchair to stand. He demonstrated its use in animals.

While the practical devices could be years from fruition, Drachman told UPI that the science has surpassed fiction. "We have implanted cochlear devices that help profoundly deaf people hear. What we are talking about here is not really that far away from those implants. It really is not just science fiction anymore."

Source: United Press International

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