RealTime IT News

Mind/Computer Interface Advances

Speech-recognition is often heralded as one of the next great ease-of-use breakthroughs in computing.

The technology seems to get better every year but never quite good enough for the masses. After all, if you could just tell your computer what to do, wouldn't that be easier than pull-down menus, cut-and-paste and good old typing?

If the speed and ease of speech commands appeals to you, how about the speed of thought?

Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems is doing advanced work on a neural interface and claims early success with quadriplegic patients. So far, its BrainGate Neural Interface System has been used successfully by two quadriplegic patients to control a computer.

The Foxborough, Mass.-based company reported its latest findings of its ongoing pilot study at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., this week.

Before working with humans, Cyberkinetics tested the system successfully using monkeys trained to do repetitive tasks manually and then use BrainGate's system.

"We have developed a system that can detect the individual firings of neurons in the brain, the firing of one neuron against another," Tim Surgenor, president and CEO of Cyberkinetics, told "Secondly, we have shown that even after the spinal cord has been severed, the brain continues to send signals to the rest of the body. And third, we've been able to convert those signals to useful computer control."

The BrainGate system requires participants to have a silicon chip implanted via craniotomy in their brains. The chip is not an integrated circuit but rather a set of electrodes to facilitate the interface between brain and computer.

The first participant, Matthew Nagel, gave up his implant after 15 months and is now involved with another implant study in another field, according to Surgenor. With the second, as yet unnamed male participant, Cyberkinetics is showing it can repeat its success with Nagel.

The current system requires that the brain implant be hooked to a medical cart with a PC and other devices designed to calibrate the brain waves; a technician must be present to perform the calibration. In the future, Surgenor said, they expect to be able to offer a wireless interface and a more automated system that participants can use unattended.

By combining point-and-click with the ability to perform a few keystrokes, disabled users would have greater access to computing resources.

"Think of the Treo smartphone," said Surgenor. "That would be an ideal system, because you only need to operate a small number of keystrokes to access the Internet."

The two study participants have been able to perform point-and-click operations on the computer screen and change channels on a television using the same part of the brain that would control those movements if they had use of their hands. Surgenor said this is different from game systems that hook participants up via electroencephalography.

"With those, you have to meditate and think an abstract thought to make it work," he said. "In the ultimate embodiment of our system, you would not be able to tell that the person moving their arms in a wheelchair and able to carry on a conversation wasn't doing it naturally." Nagel was able to move a robot arm using the BrainGate.

Last month, Cyberkinetics announced a collaboration with Case Western University in a project designed to help restore arm movements through an implantable system of electrodes. "What we provide is the input signal, a kind of control signal to make the arm move," explained Surgenor.

Ultimately Cyberkinetics expects to refine a kind of unobtrusive universal operating system that will enable those with motor impairments to quickly and reliably control a wide range of devices, including computers, assistive technologies and medical devices, simply by using their thoughts. Surgenor said the costs are in the $15,000 to $20,000 range, about comparable to other implantable systems used to help with hearing loss and Parkinson's disease.

As for a more mainstream adoption, Surgenor says his company is focused on medical applications but could look at other areas down the road. "Look at LASIK eye surgery," he said. "When it first came out, it wasn't clear that many people would use it."