Maybe, just maybe, a day is coming when humans will be so advanced technologically that doctors will be able to treat the damage caused by severe spinal cord injuries such that paraplegics can start walking again. For now, as we await that eureka moment, we can look at alternative ways of helping these patients become much more independent, like the use of thought-powered machines.
In a new research study, monkeys implanted with a brain chip were able to navigate a mind-powered robotic wheelchair using only their thoughts. Although this wasn’t the first time such a wheelchair has been showcased, there is a fundamental difference between the new machine and earlier similar systems. While brainwaves were received using external electrodes fitted inside a cap in the earlier systems, the scientists involved in the design of the new system implanted the electrodes directly into the brain to enhance the accuracy of the navigation.
But does that really work? Yes! Earlier studies involving both humans and monkeys have already demonstrated that artificial limbs can be controlled using brainwave-reading chips. In one such test, a tetraplegic woman managed to feed herself and even fly a jet simulator using her thought-controlled device.
When asked, 70 percent of paraplegics were willing to consider the implantation of such a chip into their brains if it could give them power to control assistive gadgets via their minds.
In the latest study, chips capable of monitoring and recording neural activity were implanted into the motor cortex: a series of interconnected parts of the brain that control movement. The two monkeys involved were then placed in robotic wheelchairs that had been pre-programmed earlier to navigate toward a food reward. Their brainwaves were then wirelessly transmitted to a computer for the decoding of the signals, thereby enabling wheelchair motion to be linked to certain patterns of the monkeys’ brain activity.
After undergoing a number of training sessions, the monkey subjects were then challenged to apply the use of their thoughts only to navigate the wheelchair toward the food reward. With time, the primates were able to learn to use the system to reach for the food. The more they practiced, the more their navigational skills improved, suggesting that these training exercises could be used to cause changes at the neural level and thereby boost brain function when coordinating with the machine.
With further research demonstrating the huge potential that such “brain-machine-interfaces” (or BMI's), have, we could soon be seeing more paraplegics gaining more independence in their lives. Definitely, BMIs are machines that could have an immense impact on the medical field in the near future.