Tiny Brain Implant to Allow Mind-Controlled Exoskeletons

Source: Wired.com

It’s the type of headline one might expect to see associated with a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger—namely the one where he’s a robot sent from the future to change the past.

Well, the future is here.

Scientists have invented a tiny brain implant (virtually the size of a paperclip) that could eventually control an entire exoskeleton. The implant, desirably, would be controlled by your own thoughts via an interface.

Welcome to 2016, where the previously unthinkable has entered the realm of very real science.

“To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time, without damaging the brain is an amazing development in modern medicine,” the Head of Medicine at Departments of Medicine and Neurology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital Professor Terry O’Brien recently said regarding the research.

The device works by recording signals given off by the brain’s motor cortex (that section of the brain which is responsible for conducting movement in the limbs).

Scientists have been testing this small implant on sheep for 190 days. Those sheep are still breathing, alive and strolling around. Sheep have a motor cortex much like a human’s, which is why they were targeted. While it took some time for the implanted chip to record the signals, they eventually did and were able to help control the sheep’s forelimbs.

“It can also be potentially used in people with a range of diseases aside from spinal cord injury, including epilepsy, Parkinsons and other neurological disorders,” O’Brien said.

Dr. Thomas Oxley, the principal author and neurologist at the hospital spoke at length on the potentially life changing innovation and its importance for people with prosthetic limbs.

“The development of the stentrode has brought together leaders in medical research from The Royal Melbourne Hospital, The University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health,” Oxley said. “In total 39 academic scientists from 16 departments were involved in its development.

“We have been able to create the world’s only minimally invasive device that is implanted into a blood vessel in the brain via a simple day procedure, avoiding the need for high risk open brain surgery.

“Our vision, through this device, is to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands, which in turn would lead to movement of the limbs through a mobility assist device like an exoskeleton. In essence this a bionic spinal cord.”

A related technological breakthrough is that the implant won’t cause blood clotting inside or along the blood vessel it’s attached too. In fact, over time, it will eventually become part of the vessel itself.

Dr. Nicholas Opie, the biomedical engineer and co-principle investigator at the University of Melbourne, compared the chip with a cardiac pacemaker.

“Utilising stent technology, our electrode array self-expands to stick to the inside wall of a vein, enabling us to record local brain activity. By extracting the recorded neural signals, we can use these as commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs or computers,” the engineer said.

“In our first-in-human trial, that we anticipate will begin within two years, we are hoping to achieve direct brain control of an exoskeleton for three people with paralysis. Currently, exoskeletons are controlled by manual manipulation of a joystick to switch between the various elements of walking — stand, start, stop, turn. The stentrode will be the first device that enables direct thought control of these devices”

The first human-based trail will occur at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017.

While the use of tiny brain implants to control such exoskeletons marks a significant step forward, scientists have experimented with the prospect of mind-controlled mechanisms for several years. In fact, the 2014 World Cup’s opening ceremony featured a paralyzed man kicking a soccer ball with the help of an exoskeleton controlled by his brain (minus the implant technology).

One can only imagine what’s around the corner for this momentous research.