Brain-Computer Interface Technology for Spinal Cord Injuries

A remarkable study conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh further demonstrates the ability of individuals with various degrees of paralysis to “control assistive devices and reanimate paralyzed limbs” with nothing more than their mind.  This feat is possible thanks to brain-computer interface (BCI) technology – a type of system that allows for direct communication between one’s mind and a computer.

The study, which was published in PLOS ONE and titled “An Electrocorticographic Brain Interface in an Individual with Tetraplegia,” centered on a 30-year-old male who had suffered a C4-level spinal cord injury seven years prior to the experiment.  As a result of his injuries, the man had no use of his arms or hands.

spinal cord injuryHere is an overly simplistic break down of the study and the technology involved: A tiny chip with electrodes was implanted inside the man’s skull on the part of his brain responsible for arm and hand movements.  The chip was connected to a small opening on his chest via two wires that were tunneled subcutaneously (below the lower layer of his skin).  During sessions, the two wires were connected to a computer that mapped his brain activity.  For example, the man was shown a virtual character on an LCD screen making movements with its right arm.  The man would try to mimic these movements (in his mind), which produced signals that were then processed and organized by the computer.  Next, he worked on controlling a cursor in a three-dimensional computer environment.  The study culminated with the man being able to operate a robotic arm.

The chip was removed from his brain after 28 days, with no adverse effects.

According to the authors, the key feature of the study was the speed with which the man was able to acquire control over the cursor’s movements.

Overall, the results were promising and serve as another step on the path to greater independence for those who suffer from paralysis or the loss of limbs.