Bob Veillette will never move again. But that does not mean he will never again grab a cup of coffee. The technology that may allow him to do that, called Brain Computer Interface or BCI, produces results of an almost Biblical level: it can allow the deaf to hear, the blind to see and the mute to communicate.
“This is really an exciting time for the field of prosthetic devices,” said Michael Crutcher, a neurophysiologist at Emory University. “Over the next 10 to 15 years we are going to make tremendous strides in helping people who are partially or fully paralyzed.”
For Veillette and thousands of paralytics like him, that means powering a wheelchair, moving a prosthetic limb and writing out their thoughts on a computer screen – all by imagining themselves doing it.
If this were the aerospace industry, we’d be like in the 1910s and 1920s, where people were starting to build the first rockets and the first planes were coming out,” said Florian Solzbacher, director of the Utah Nanofabrication Laboratory. “We will see revolutionary changes in the next 30 years.
“Those changes have been brought about by a better understanding of the brain’s functioning as well as stronger, faster computers that can better record the language spoken by the hundreds of billions of neurons that make up the brain’s communication system. In many ways, researchers are on the threshold of translating the world’s last indecipherable language: the billions of electrical pulses that spark throughout our brain, causing us to move, speak and think. Once researchers can decode those neural signals – signals that move as fast as a few milliseconds in healthy individuals – all that is left is to transmit the brain’s will to an external device. That can be anything from a prosthetic hand to a drone aircraft.
“The possibilities really are quite vast,” said Dr. Dustin J. Tyler, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “But how do we get the rich information of the brain into the vast possibilities of the man-made technology?”
That question – how to capture the signals – may be the most controversial one in the field. Researchers at Braingate2 implanted a sensor, equipped with 96 micro electrodes, in Bob Veillette’s motor cortex last year. They recorded the neuronal impulses coming from that area of the brain, transferred them to a computer, which translated them into Veillette’s intended action – allowing him to move a computer cursor by thinking about it.