Research into brain-computer interfaces
Technology which would allow people suffering from paralysis to control prosthetic limbs with their brains has moved a step closer.
Scientists have been working for a long time on brain-computer interfaces – computer systems that learn to interpret the brain’s electrical signals and use them to control inanimate objects.
This month, a group of doctors and neuroscientists revealed they had created a system which enabled a quadriplegic man to pick up and move objects with a robotic hand.
How does this technology work?
Your body’s actions are controlled by neurons – nerve cells which communicate information to and from the brain through chemical and electrical signals. The thinking behind the development is that if computers can learn to interpret the electrical signals from your brain, they should be ableto then instruct prosthetic devices to carry out your brain’s instructions – and perform the functions which, in someone whose mobility is impaired, the body cannot do.
In an interview with CNN, Dr Rajesh Rao, a neural engineer and director of the Centre for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington, explained: “For example, the person imagines moving their hand, and we use a computer to extract the patterns that correspond to imagining movement of their hand.”
What is the latest development?
The latest research was carried out by doctors and neuroscientists from the Battelle Memorial Institute – a science and technology research organisation in Ohio – Ohio State University and the University of Virginia, and published in the journal Nature Medicine.
The researchers worked with a volunteer – a 27-year-old man suffering from quadriplegia following a diving accident, who had a chip implanted in his brain. Electrical signals from his brain were fed into neural networks – computer systems modelled on the human brain and nervous system – connected to a robotic arm.
Slowly, the networks learned which brain signals were related to which muscle commands and how to relay them to the robotic limb, and eventually, the young man was able to pick up and manipulate three small objects with the robotic hand.Not only could he move the arm more accurately and quickly than with existing systems, the system actually worked better when the researchers let it train itself instead of giving it hints.
Developing the future of medicine
The system is one of many recent developments in the fields of prosthetics and neural networking. If your company is one of those carrying out scientific and medical research, you may be entitled to financial help through the government’s research and development tax credits – a scheme designed to support groundbreaking research. You might be able to get as much as a quarter of your costs back – and as R&D tax specialists, we can do all the work on your r&d tax claim for you. Take a look at our r&d tax credit calculatorfor an estimate of the value of your claim.