Technability: The Next Frontier

While we continue to wait for a “cure,” scientists and engineers are coming up with ways for those of us with limited mobility to increase our function. A recent 60 Minutes report detailed some of the current research on computer-brain interfaces, or CBI. Rather than using your hands or voice to control a computer, you can do it directly using your brain waves.

Initial attempts have used external sensors to pick up tiny electrical impulses generated by your brain when you think. For example, thinking about the letter “A” as it flashes on the screen creates a specific brain wave pattern that can be picked up by tiny electronic sensors. The whole alphabet might be flashing on the screen, so concentrating on one letter and then the next could allow you to spell out a word or phrase. The user puts on something that looks like a swimming or shower cap fitted with small electrodes that simply sit on the surface of the skull and “listen” for the brain to give off electric impulses. Similar technology is already available for video gamers.

In early trials, people with ALS and high-level SCIs have been able to type and speak by using a CBI interface. The difficulty is that listening for brain waves from outside the head is like listening to a concert from outside the venue. You probably get the gist of what’s going on, but it’s going to be somewhat garbled. The next step is to place electrodes inside the head in order to pick up these minute electrical signals more precisely.

At first glance this technology may seem a bit more advanced than it really is, but there is no chance of “Big Brother” listening in on your most intimate thoughts, a la 1984. The devices only pick up general brain patterns like “recognition.” That being said, there is still great potential for this technology to become widespread. Scientists at several U.S. universities are now working on connecting the brain directly to computers and other devices using sensors on or inside the brain — in other words, from inside the concert hall, front row. The potential exists to control a myriad of software programs available for the standard home computer. Users with no motor function may be able to type, speak electronically, manipulate environmental controls, or even directly control a wheelchair or other machine.

Another application being tested is the ability to bypass a SCI by linking the brain directly to muscles. Some initial research was recently reported in Nature using monkeys to control robotic arms with a CBI.  The ultimate hope is that this technology could be used to directly manipulate our own muscles. I’m envisioning wearing a type of Iron Man suit that can be controlled directly from my brain.

A less extreme option is a related technology that detects twitches in functioning muscles and sends signals to a computer or other device. One such device was recently released by ablenetinc.com. The Impulse EMG Switch is a Bluetooth device “that senses tiny muscle contractions” allowing you to wirelessly control a computer. It uses electromyography — a device for recording electric currents from an active muscle — so any muscle with active motor control can be used. The website lists this device at $2,100, so this is definitely the sort of device you should try before you buy. You simply mount a small box externally to your body and then twitch your muscles to send different controls to a computer.

The military is already using a similar technology on veterans who have lost limbs. One lucky vet is able to control a robotic arm simply by flexing different muscles in her pectoral and shoulder, which translates into electrical impulses sent to the robotic arm.

All of these technologies are new, and certainly the more invasive ones will take time to be readily available to consumers. The upside is that there may be an electro-mechanical option for increasing function to bridge the gap until cellular treatments, or even “the cure,” is found.

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