After a tragic knife attack left Matthew Nagle paralysed, experimental technology has given him a new ability: he can now control things like his computer and television with his mind.
Matthew plays the computer game Tetris, for example, simply by thinking. His thoughts create electrical signals that are recorded by the BrainGate device implanted about 1 millimeter deep in an area of his motor cortex that controls movement. The brain-computer interface device, smaller in size than a baby aspirin, has 100 tiny electrodes that collect internal signals which are converted by external processors into signals that the user can control.
Recent research demonstrated that people were able to control a computer cursor while wearing a 64 electrode cap that picked up and interpreted brain waves, but this is the first reported human trial of such an implanted device.
“The goal of the BrainGate program is to develop a fast, reliable and unobtrusive connection between the brain of a severely disabled person and a personal computer” remarked Tim Surgenor, President and CEO of Cyberkinetics, the maker of the proprietary device. “We [hope] to provide paralysed individuals with a gateway through which they can access the broad capabilities of computers, control devices in the surrounding environment, and even move their own limbs.”
Nagle has already been able to control a prosthetic hand and robotic arm through simple movements, including a hand grasp, using his thoughts. “I don’t care if I have to use a cane. I’m going to walk. I’m going to do this,” said Nagle. Though his first steps may be years in the making, researchers remain cautiously optimistic that it could happen. In the mean time, their primary goal is to restore many of the daily activities that are impossible for paralysed people. They also hope their work will provide a platform for a variety of other assistive devices in the future.
Using brain-computer interface devices to assist disabled people is an obvious and important application. But could the extension of control-by-thought technology to common computer tasks be far off? Perhaps we should avoid implanting chips in our brains simply to control our computer cursors, but recording brain waves externally could find it’s way into our lives sooner than we imagined.
No more mouse? No need for voice recognition? Just think of the ergonomic possibilities.
Sources: The Boston Globe, BBC News, Gizmag