This Brain Implant Makes Telepathic Typing Possible

Stanford University researchers have developed an advanced brain-computer interface that lets paralyzed patients type quickly and accurately.

A new brain-computer interface (BCI) developed by Stanford University promises to help paralyzed patients communicate more efficiently – by reading their minds.

This is quite literally true, actually. The technology enables people with spinal injuries or severe limb weakness to type words on a computer screen, via direct brain control, at up to 39 characters per minute.

In a research study published this week, Stanford scientists detailed the new technique, in which paralyzed patients controlled the point-and-click motion of a cursor on an onscreen keyboard. The cursor moved around via direct brain control; no physical input was required.

This kind of BCI technology has actually been around for a while, in various iterations, but the Stanford technique builds upon previous systems to deliver the highest speed and accuracy numbers recorded to date. What's more, the technology can be easily ported to different kinds of computing systems, from desktops and laptops to tablets or smart phones.

The new technique was tested on three study participants - one with a spinal cord injury, and two others with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease. According to information released by Stanford, each patient had a small ("baby-aspirin sized") electrode array surgically implanted into the surface of the brain, at a depth of only a few millimeters. Specifically, the electrodes were implanted in the motor cortex, the region of the brain that controls muscle movements.

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The electrodes monitored signals from individual brain cells and neurons and sent the data to an output cable attached to the skull. Special biotech algorithms translated brain waves on the fly to point-and-click commands on the computer screen. When the person thought about moving the cursor left, it moved left. When they thought about clicking, it clicked. Incredible.

"Our study's success marks a major milestone on the road to improving quality of life for people with paralysis," said Jaimie Henderson, professor of neurosurgery at Stanford, in press materials. Henderson performed two of the three device-implantation procedures and is listed as co-senior author of the study, along with Krishna Shenoy, professor of electrical engineering.

The published paper is just the first phase of bringing the technology to people who need it. The Stanford team already has plans to make the system more efficient, less invasive and fully wireless.

"This is really a safety study, a feasibility study," Henderson says in the fascinating demo video (below). "It's not meant to be the definitive device that one would deploy. It will obviously be important to have these systems be completely implantable, wireless, able to function autonomously and not require a technician."

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Despite the technical hurdles ahead, Henderson is optimistic.

"These are all areas we're researching," he says. "I'm very confident that in the not-too-distant future we'll have systems that are able to provide help for people with paralysis."

The landmark BCI study was published today in the journal eLife.

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