A new technology, soon to be tested in Chicago, plugs the human brain right into a desktop computer. Its remarkable goal: to enable quadriplegics to use it just by thinking, allowing them to do things like surf the Web, write e-mails, play video games and operate TV remotes and telephones, all without moving a muscle.
"We can take someone's thought and put it on a screen," said Tim Surgenor, chief executive of Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, manufacturer of the device, which is called BrainGate Neural Interface System.
So far, BrainGate has been tested on one person -- Boston area quadriplegic Matt Nagle, who now can move a cursor and play the simple video game Pong.
Damage blocks signals
The federal Food and Drug Administration is allowing Cyberkinetics initially to test BrainGate on four people besides Nagle, all of them quadriplegic. Three centers, including the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, are recruiting volunteers. Dr. David Chen, a Rehab Institute researcher, hopes to select a volunteer within a month. A surgeon will drill a hole in the patient's head and implant a chip on the surface of the part of the brain involved in moving arms and hands.
The chip, about the size of a baby aspirin, contains 100 electrode sensors, each thinner than a human hair. The sensors detect tiny electrical signals generated when a user imagines, for example, that he's moving the cursor, its manufacturer says.
Though paralyzed, a quadriplegic still has the ability to generate such signals -- they just don't get past the damaged portion of the spinal cord. With BrainGate, the signals instead travel through a wire that comes out of the skull and connects to a computer, Cybernetics says.
BrainGate uses technology similar to cochlear implants that help deaf people hear and deep-brain simulators that treat Parkinson's disease. Those devices cost $15,000 to $25,000. BrainGate will be "at least that expensive, and perhaps more," Surgenor said.
Nagle, the first volunteer, was paralyzed in a knife attack 3-1/2 years ago. The other day, he was able to control a robotic arm.
"I was using my thoughts," he said in an interview with National Public Radio. "When I wanted it to go left, it would go left, and, when I wanted it to go right, it would go right."
BrainGate sensors will remain in each volunteer for 13 months before being removed. Volunteers face surgical risks such as infections and brain damage, and it's yet to be shown that the first version of BrainGate will provide any practical benefit.
"We're doing it in the safest and best way we know how," Surgenor said. "These people who participate deserve a lot of credit. They're pioneers."
Nagle told NPR why he volunteered: "I'm sitting here at home seven days a week, not doing anything. This doctor sent it to me, and I took it."
About 11,000 people in the United States suffer spinal cord injuries each year, and about 4,000 wind up paralyzed from the neck down.
Technology already exists for quadriplegics to operate wheelchairs, computers and some other devices by, for example, sipping or puffing on a straw or tapping a plate with their heads. But such systems are slow, Chen said.
The first generation of BrainGate, it's hoped, will enable a user to move a cursor in all four directions and operate a mouse. If the user wanted to type the letter A, for example, he'd move the cursor over a keyboard displayed on the screen, then click on the A.
Could move arms, hands
Future versions of BrainGate could be faster, said Nicholas Hatsopoulos, a University of Chicago neuroscientist and a Cyberkinetics founder. The user would need only to think of the letter A, and the letter would appear on the screen.
Farther in the future, BrainGate perhaps could be connected to a user's arms and hands. When the user imagines he is raising an arm, electrical signals would be sent to contract the necessary muscles, Hatsopoulos said.
Surgenor hopes to win FDA approval by 2007 to market BrainGate.