Researchers at the University of Melbourne have developed a tiny brain-computer interface (BCI) device the size of a small paperclip that helps patients with upper limb paralysis to text, email, and search the internet.
The device, called Stentrode, was implanted successfully into two patients suffering from severe paralysis due to motor neuron disease (MND) as part of a human trial.
Promising brain-computer interface trials
Through their research, published in the Journal of NeuroInterventional Surgery, the team at the University of Melbourne demonstrated how the Strentrode was able to wirelessly restore the transmission of brain impulses out of the body.
The two trial patients successfully completed daily tasks including online banking, shopping, and texting via the brain-computer interface.
As per the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Professor Peter Mitchell, the trial shows that the device can be safely implanted and used within the patients.
"This is the first time an operation of this kind has been done, so we couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be problems, but in both cases, the surgery has gone better than we had hoped," Professor Mitchell explained in a press release.
The devices were implanted into the patients through their blood vessels, next to the brain's motor cortex, via a small 'keyhole' incision in the neck. Professor Mitchell says that the surgery isn't easy, but the patients were discharged from the hospital only a few days later.
Renewed independence via machine learning
The two patients used the Stentrode to control a computer-based operating system via an eye-tracker for cursor navigation — no mousepad or keyboard was needed.
The trial participants, who were essentially controlling a computer via the power of thought, could type and carry out multiple click actions including zoom and left click with the help of a machine learning algorithm that adapted the device to their movements.
The researchers, who hope to expand their trials in the future, do caution that it will be a few years before this type of technology becomes commercially available. However, once it does, it has the potential to return independence to people who would otherwise have to rely completely on palliative care to carry out simple everyday tasks.