New research at the BrainGate initiative — a research team focused on the development of brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies for people with neurological disease — may soon allow disabled individuals to operate tablets by simply thinking about cursor movements and clicks.
In a recent study, three clinical trial participants with tetraplegia were able to navigate through commonly used tablet applications using an investigational BrainGate BCI that records neural activity directly from a small sensor placed in the neural cortex. The participants were able to send messages, surf the web, check the weather and shop online. One participant who had told researchers that she missed playing music was even able to play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, on a digital piano interface. Participants were able to make 22 point-and-click selections per minute, and reported that they found the setup simple and fun to use. One participant said, “it felt more natural than the times I remember using a mouse”.
The BCI used a baby aspirin-sized implant that detects signals associated with intended movements produced in the brain’s cortex. These signals are then decoded and routed to external devices. Previous research has shown that this device can also enable paralyzed individuals to move robotic limbs.
In this study, neural signals from the BrainGate BCI were routed to a Bluetooth interface configured to work like a wireless mouse. The virtual mouse was then paired to an unmodified Google Nexus 9 tablet. All pre installed ease of accessibility software was turned off.
“It was great to see our participants make their way through the tasks we asked them to perform, but the most gratifying and fun part of the study was when they just did what they wanted to do — using the apps that they liked for shopping, watching videos or just chatting with friends,” said lead author Dr. Paul Nuyujukian.
Researchers also said that this technology could allow the opening of new lines of communication between the disabled and their caregivers.
“This has great potential for restoring reliable, rapid and rich communication for somebody with locked-in syndrome or is unable to speak,” said Jose Albites Sanabria, who performed this research as a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Brown University. “That not only could provide increased interaction with their family and friends, but can provide a conduit for more thoroughly describing ongoing health issues with caregivers.”
The study was published on November 21 in the journal PLOS ONE.