Losing the connection between the brain and the extremities is one of the most severe forms of disability. The organic wiring of the nerves ceases to convey what the brain orders and the ability to move comes to an end. But for the Braingate team, a scientific project conceived in the US and now also operating in Europe, this end was the beginning of its 10-year trajectory dedicated to solve the problem of paralysis. It is a very ambitious goal, as the key to fighting this situation is to develop an artificial nervous system that can replace the damaged one. First, the wishes of the brain must be interpreted, and then these commands movement have to be sent to a device such as a wheelchair or an exoskeleton.
“The fundamental idea is to get people with paralysis to once again interact with the world. To do this, we work on interpreting what the electrical patterns of movement are,” explains John Donoghue (Boston, 1949) to OpenMind. He is the leader of this project in which more than 50 scientists from universities such as Stanford and Brown are participating and he coordinates it from the Wyss Center of Geneva, a technological institution of 8,000 square metres located on Campus Biotech, dedicated to uniting technology and neuroscience. There he shares experiments with one of the most ambitious projects of the European Union, The Human Brain Project, an effort determined to obtain the most detailed map of the brain. “I see them from the window,” says Donoghue. “And we are in contact. But for us the map is only the first step because we need to see how this map of the brain varies dynamically.”
The task is very complex because the electrical patterns that neurons draw by doing something as simple as taking a drink vary each day. “We do not know exactly what causes the change. Something like being hungry may change the pattern. What we do is let the machine learn to interpret the different patterns as the same order,” explains Donoghue. The scientist explains that the process resembles how a TV screen activates its pixels: “If you looked closely at a TV, you would see the flash of one of the small squares that form the image. If you look at it closely, it is meaningless, but seeing the whole picture, it makes sense. We do exactly that. We take partial samples and then reconstruct the pattern, and surprisingly it is quite simple. It changes when you want to move your hand up, down or to the left.” Next, this brain impulse, an electrical map of a specific order, is translated into a language of zeros and ones than a computer can interpret. The last step is to send the order to an external device such as a robotic arm or a computer.
A brain with WiFi
There are other challenges that Braingate must devote itself to besides deciphering the lexicon of the brain. One of the key ones is to build a device that can be integrated into the patient’s body and wirelessly send their orders, their thoughts, to all kinds of devices. It is like having a remote control implanted in the brain to directly control the TV, the computer, a wheelchair or a robotic arm. “It is essential to achieve this because the tests we have done so far with people require a bulky device with a cable. Thus, the technology would be much easier to use by the patient at home,” Donoghue explains.
And this same technology, capable of moving a robotic arm with a thought, could also apply to amputee patients. Beyond the initial application of overcoming paralysis, the technology of this project to develop a communication interface between the brain and computers is a very useful tool for overcoming other types of disabilities that significantly impede everyday life. According to a report by the WHO and the World Bank in 2011, some 200 million people worldwide are in this situation.
For now, Braingate has already managed to build a device that can be grafted under the skin of the forehead and in contact with the skull so that the brain can transmit to a machine the equivalent of 200 DVDs of information. This year, after obtaining the approval of the authorities in the United States, the company Blackrock Microsystems has begun marketing this device, dubbed Cereplex-W, at a price of 13,000 euros. Currently, it can only be used by research teams and for tests with primates, although they hope to get permission to test it on human patients this year. The next technological evolution will be to use flexible electronics. OLEDs, fashionable for their ability to produce circuits that can be bent, would be ideal materials for Braingate because of their organic nature, though Donoghue explains that it is a technology that cannot be used until it matures.
Donoghue has already experienced some exciting moments with the project. On April 12, 2011, Cathy Hutchinson, with complete paralysis and unable to speak, succeeded in moving a robotic arm with her mind (see video). This same patient made an electric wheelchair turn remotely, hitting Donoghue’s toe . “I became the first pedestrian hit by a vehicle remotely controlled by a brain,” he recalls, laughing. But the goal remains incomplete. These tests in the lab have to be converted into reality. And although making predictions in science and technology is complex, the leader of Braingate date has put forward a date: “I am an optimistic person and I think that in five years, people with disabilities will be able to use this technology at home to recover their interaction with the world.”