Restoring communication
Two participants in the BrainGate clinical trial directly control a tablet computer through a brain-computer interface to chat with each other online. The research, published in PLOS ONE, is a step toward restoring the ability of people with paralysis to use everyday technologies.
Credit: BrainGate Collaboration

 

Three people with paralysis participating in the BrainGate clinical trial, an effort that includes Brown University researchers, chatted with family and friends, shopped online and used other tablet computer applications, all by just thinking about pointing and clicking a mouse.

Tablets and other mobile computing devices are part of everyday life, but using them can be difficult for people with paralysis. New research from the BrainGate* consortium shows that a brain-computer interface (BCI) can enable people with paralysis to directly operate an off-the-shelf tablet device just by thinking about making cursor movements and clicks.

In a study published November 21 in PLOS ONE, three clinical trial participants with tetraplegia, each of whom was using the investigational BrainGate BCI that records neural activity directly from a small sensor placed in the motor cortex, were able to navigate through commonly used tablet programs, including email, chat, music-streaming and video-sharing apps. The participants messaged with family, friends, members of the research team and their fellow participants. They surfed the web, checked the weather and shopped online. One participant, a musician, played a snippet of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a digital piano interface.

For years, the BrainGate collaboration has been working to develop the neuroscience and neuroengineering know-how to enable people who have lost motor abilities to control external devices just by thinking about the movement of their own arm or hand. In this study, we’ve harnessed that know-how to restore people’s ability to control the exact same everyday technologies they were using before the onset of their illnesses. It was wonderful to see the participants express themselves or just find a song they want to hear.<.cite>
Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a senior author of the paper and a Stanford University neurosurgeon

The fact that the tablet devices were entirely unaltered and had all preloaded accessibility software turned off was an important part of the study, the researchers said.

The assistive technologies that are available today, while they’re important and useful, are all inherently limited in terms of either the speed of use they enable, or the flexibility of the interface. That’s largely because of the limited input signals that are available. With the richness of the input from the BCI, we were able to just buy two tablets on Amazon, turn on Bluetooth and the participants could use them with our investigational BrainGate system right out of the box.
Krishna Shenoy, a senior author of the paper and an electrical engineer and neuroscientist at Stanford University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The researchers say that the study also has the potential to open important new lines of communication between patients with severe neurological deficits and their health care providers.

This has great potential for restoring reliable, rapid and rich communication for somebody with locked-in syndrome who is unable to speak. 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.
Jose Albites Sanabria, who performed this research as a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Brown University.

As a neuroscientist and practising critical care neurologist, senior author Dr. Leigh Hochberg of Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Providence VA Medical Center sees tremendous potential for the restorative capabilities of BCIs exemplified in this study.

When I see somebody in the neuro-intensive care unit who has had an acute stroke and has lost the ability to move or communicate, I’d like to be able to say, ‘I’m very sorry this has happened, but we can restore your ability to use the technologies you were using before this happened, and you’ll be able to use them again tomorrow. And we are getting closer to being able to tell someone who has been diagnosed with ALS, ‘even while we continue to seek out a cure, you will never lose the ability to communicate.’ This work is a step toward those goals.
Dr. Leigh Hochberg of Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Providence VA Medical Center

 

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Restoring communication
Two participants in the BrainGate clinical trial directly control a tablet computer through a brain-computer interface to chat with each other online. The research, published in PLOS ONE, is a step toward restoring the ability of people with paralysis to use everyday technologies. Credit: BrainGate Collaboration

 
 
 
 

Brown University