The reality of telekinesis (the ability to move objects with the mind) has long been debated, dismissed by skeptics as merely illusion or sleight of hand and its practitioners written off as nothing more than charlatans. However, the cynics may yet have to eat their words as technology emerges that actually enables paraplegics to move their limbs by using nothing but the power of their thoughts.
"BrainGate", as the system is called, is a tiny microchip which is implanted into the brain of the paralysed patient and linked to a computer, creating a "brain-computer interface" or BCI. Science fiction or science fact? Tests thus far indicate the latter which is great news for those paralysed through spinal cord injury or those suffering from "locked-in syndrome"; those people previously written off by the medical profession as beyond help or recovery. Very often, sufferers' minds work perfectly although tragically their bodies do not. French magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a locked-in syndrome sufferer once described his body as a prison inside which was trapped a mind that worked normally.
So how does BrainGate work? The basic premise is simple. It works on the assumption that for the majority of sufferers their problem is not in the area of the brain responsible for enabling movement, but rather in the neural network which transmits the electronic impulses from the brain to the rest of the body. In cases of catastrophic neck or spinal injury this neural bridge is formed by the spinal cord. The BrainGate sensor placed in the patient's brain collects the neural instructions and transmits them to a computer. The computer then translates these electronic "thoughts" and applies them as instructed via a keyboard or cursor, thus enabling a patient to drive their own electric wheelchair, for example or to write emails by moving the cursor to "type" text.
Minute gold wires are implanted into the tissue of the motor cortex area in the brain; the area responsible for controlling movement. The wires transmit electronic signals from the motor cortex to a minute information storage device called an "array" which is affixed to a "pedestal" inside the patient's skull. From the array, another wire feeds the neural information back to a computer where highly advanced programmes decode the neurological signals and interpret them into the patient's desired action.
The current BrainGate sensor requires patients to remain attached to the computer via a sort of plug-like connection in the top of their heads. It is hoped that this will soon be superseded by a wireless version linked remotely to a portable mini-computer carried in a belt around the patient's waist.
So encouraging are the results of tests so far that there is talk of one day linking BrainGate to a network of electronic stimulators attached to muscles in the patient's arms or legs, effectively enabling them to move their own bodies instead of just instructing a computer to move a cursor. BCI projects have also attracted the interest of the military and the government. The idea of somehow being able to interface man and machine has rather alarming implications. BrainGate may one day go a step further than current lie detector technology and enable intelligence services to actually read the thoughts and probe the brains of prisoners or dissidents.
There is also the frightening idea that far distant, future development of BCI could see virtually indestructible robot soldiers remotely controlled by humans using just telepathy, which all sounds more than a little bit too Terminator for my liking. Luckily, the developers of BrainGate have dismissed these ideas as fanciful and unrealistic. Well, that's a relief!
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.