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Brain-reading tech lets paralyzed people control a tablet with their thoughts

BrainGate Collaboration

The U.S.-based BrainGate consortium has developed technology that makes it possible for people with paralysis to use tablets and other mobile devices — simply by thinking about cursor movements and clicks.

The technology uses a miniature sensor to record users’ neural activity via their motor cortex, the part of the brain used for planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements. These signals are then decoded and turned into instructions for controlling software. Using the system, three clinical trial participants were able to use a Google Nexus 9 tablet to carry out email messaging, chat, music streaming and video sharing. They also used the internet, checked the weather, and carried out online shopping, among other applications.

“For years, the BrainGate collaboration has been working to develop the neuroscience and neuroengineering know-how to enable people who have lost motor abilities to control external devices just by thinking about the movement of their own arm or hand,” Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a Stanford University neurosurgeon, said in a statement. “In this study, we’ve harnessed that know-how to restore people’s ability to control the exact same everyday technologies they were using before the onset of their illnesses. It was wonderful to see the participants express themselves or just find a song they want to hear.”

What is particularly impressive about this demonstration is the speed at which these interactions could be carried out. Participants were able to make up to 22 point-and-click selections per minute, or type up to 30 characters during the same time frame. They also reported the experience feeling intuitive, with one person noting that, “It felt more natural than the times I remember using a mouse.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve covered amazing brain-computer interfaces, capable of letting people do everything from playing games of Tetris to controlling robot arms using only their thoughts. The more work that is done in this area, however, the closer we get to this technology being perfected and made available to everyone who needs it.

A paper describing this latest project, titled “Cortical control of a tablet computer by people with paralysis,” was recently published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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