It used to be the stuff of science fiction — humans controlling devices with their brains — but new technologies could turn it into reality.
“This is a breakthrough moment for the field of brain-computer interfaces,” Synchron CEO Thomas Oxley said in a press release. “We are excited to report that we have delivered a fully implantable, take home, wireless technology that does not require open brain surgery, which functions to restore freedoms for people with severe disability.”
The device consists of a tube mounted with electrodes that is threaded through a blood vessel leading to the brain. In the tests conducted, researchers went for the jugular, running the tube up the vein and positioning it by the brain’s primary motor cortex, which controls voluntary movements. Brain impulses are then transmitted to a unit implanted under the skin in the chest.
The device has been successfully tested on two participants with paralysis from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). While it differs from person to person, symptoms of ALS include weak muscles, impairment in the use of arms and legs, and twitching or cramping of muscles.
According to a study published on Oct. 28, the two patients were able to control a Windows 10 operating system to text, online shop, and manage finances. The first participant was able to use the device unsupervised after 86 days, while the second participant managed to do so after 71 days. They achieved a “typing task average click selection accuracy” of 92.6 percent and 93.2 percent, respectively.
Synchron said in a video that the Stentrode works like a “brain bluetooth.”
“What we’re doing differently is using the blood vessels as the natural highway into the brain and lacing the inside of the blood vessels with electrodes, or sensors that can record activity from the brain,” Oxley said in the same video.
Signals produced by the brain are then interpreted by the computer and produced into commands like zoom and left-click, while an eye-tracker is used to control the cursor. There is no need for a keyboard or mouse.
Graham Felstead, one of the participants, said that using the Stentrode has been life-changing.
“The device has allowed me to be productive again, including shopping, banking, and delegating tasks among the Rotary Club members with whom I volunteer. It’s incredible to gain this level of independence back,” he said.
According to Wired, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the widespread use of the technology. Synchron also plans to conduct more tests.
The Stentrode isn’t the only brain-computer tech in development. In what sounds straight out of a Black Mirror episode, Elon Musk unveiled a chip in August that’s “a Fitbit in your skull” that could allow “human-AI symbiosis.”
While the development of brain-computer interfaces has long been focused on helping people with paralysis, it has also ventured into other areas. In 2018, Nissan unveiled research on technology that could allow vehicles to interpret signals from the driver’s brain. In 2016, Boston-based startup Neurable developed a virtual reality game that can be controlled with the player’s mind.