Boffins in America say that their new “neural interface” brain-plug equipment, intended to let users control computers and machinery merely by thinking, is about to embark on its second stage of clinical trials. The tech is intended initially to help patients suffering from paralysing illness or massive injuries, but has implications beyond the medical field.
The kit in question is called BrainGate, and is under development by neuroscience, engineering and computing boffins at Brown University in Rhode Island. It uses a grid of electrodes implanted beneath a user’s skull into his or her motor cortex, linked to a “pedestal” assembly atop the cranium. At the moment, this is hooked up by a wired connection to the BrainGate computers which interpret the electrodes’ readings from the motor cortex and “turn thought into action” – for instance by moving a cursor on a screen, or operating a cybernetic limb, or directing a motorised wheelchair.
Initial trials have already been carried out, according to the researchers, during which a lot was learned. However the tech is far from fully developed yet, and the second phase of trials – now beginning – is under an “investigational device exemption”, meaning that the kit is still at the prototype stage and isn’t certified as medically safe. Volunteers using it are acting as guinea pigs, or test pilots, as it were.
The BrainGate team has lofty goals. They note that wired connections are clumsy, and furthermore that the through-the-skin plug assembly presents a risk of infection – a rather serious one, as it penetrates not just the scalp but the skull and the protective meninges covering the brain.