Paralyzed individuals successfully use brain waves to operate tablet computers

Participants have a real-time chat on their tablets. | Credit: CC0 via PLOS One

In a collaborative study presented by scientists primarily affiliated with Stanford and Brown Universities, participants suffering from significant paralysis were successfully able to use non-modified applications on an Android tablet using their brain waves. In previous studies, “point-and-click” computer functionality interpreted from these kinds of signals has been accomplished, but the applications available to participants was limited to software and devices that had been specialized and personalized for users’ specific needs. This study has demonstrated technology that overcomes this limitation and enables access to the full range of software available to non-disabled users. Participants enjoyed applications previously unavailable to them such as streaming music services and a piano keyboard player.

To accomplish the study’s objectives, scientists capitalized and combined existing technologies for their unique end. Brain waves from participants’ brain implants were sent to a commercially available recording system and then processed and decoded by an existing real-time interpreter software. The decoded data was then transmitted to a Bluetooth interface configured as a wireless mouse which was paired to an Android tablet. While the steps to accomplish the task at hand are many, the result somewhat resembles telepathy but largely resembles greater accessibility for the disabled.

A study participant searches for orchid care information using signals from her brain. | Credit: CC0 via PLOS One

Individuals suffering from various forms of paralysis generally have difficulty using communication technologies. Strokes, neurological injuries, and neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) can all lead to limited physical functionality that impairs the use of communication devices. However, although physical mobility is affected by paralytic conditions, the brain often continues to send signals to muscles to trigger movement. Using this attempted signaling, scientists have been developing technology to bridge the disconnect between the brain’s signals and the intended outcomes.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) record activity in the brain and interpret that data to generate an action. Using microelectrode arrays implanted into areas of the brain corresponding to desired functionality, neural signals are transmitted to the array’s plates or shanks that interpret their activity into usable data. All of the participants in this study had implants placed in the hand area of their brains’ dominant motor cortexes from which signals were recorded. Since computers inherently operate via digital signals, they stand as promising tools to facilitate communications originating from BCIs. In particular, algorithms developed using machine learning have been designed to interpret brain signals into computer mouse movement, a capability which can be expanded into software accessibility.

One of the study’s researchers, Krishna V. Shenoy, is a consultant for Neuralink Inc., Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company. While BCIs in general have similar goals to Neuralink’s, the major difference is in purpose, namely in that Musk’s company aims to enhance human capabilities to better compete with artificial intelligence rather than restoring or improving lost abilities. Where BCIs interpret existing brain signals to reenable preexisting capabilities, Neuralink hopes to merge computing and brain power into a seemingly singular function via tiny, dust-sized particles rather than traditional implants.

Watch the video below to see the participants’ tablet use during the study:

Dacia J. Ferris: Accidental computer geek, fascinated by most history and the multiplanetary future on its way. Quite keen on the democratization of space. | It's pronounced day-sha, but I answer to almost any variation thereof.
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