Scientists and engineers are working to meld mind and machine, combining the most humanlike bionic arm with cutting edge computer chip technology in a brain-machine interface to help quadriplegics and amputees, according to recent news stories.
This type of thought-driven prosthetic is years from commercial availability, but innovations in this area of neuroprosthetic technology, combining advances in bionics, computer chips, virtual reality and, in some cases, artificial intelligence, are under development and early-stage testing at several research centers, according to recent profiles by the Associated Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Animals and people outfitted with brain electrodes that tap into signals from their brain cells have used their thoughts to work computers to move prosthetic arms on purpose, as separate projects using different approaches and methods continue to make advances.
Under a $34.5 million dollar contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University developed a modular robotic prosthetic arm that works through a computerized brain-machine interface and offers 22 types of motion, even allowing each finger to move independently, though it weighs only nine pounds (about what a natural limb would weigh).
In another project at the University of Pittsburgh, monkeys learned to use a robot arm to feed themselves.
According to Brown University, the BrainGate implantable neural interface, tested successfully with humans, can detect and record brain signals, allowing persons who have lost the use of arms and legs to use point-and-click control through a computer.
Matthew McKee/BrainGate Collaboration
Monkeys at Duke University moved virtual arms on a computer with their thoughts, and received feedback about the texture "touched" objects.
A project known as BrainGate that involves a private company and several research centers including Brown University has developed and tested an implantable neural interface smaller than a dime; the device has remained functional for up to 1,000 days in human test subjects, according to the research team.
Though many more advances must be made in neuroprosthetic technology before mind-controlled robotic limbs become available on the market to spinal cord injury patients and amputees, the pioneering human testers have found these first experimental experiences emotionally gratifying and hope-inspiring, according to the recent news media accounts.
Though the ability to sense what is being touched with the new devices is still lacking, the ability to direct purposeful movements with thoughts has proved thrilling for the volunteers and their loved ones.