Brain interfaces could eventually help people with paralysis
A company is testing a gadget that could one day allow you to use computers with your mind.
Brain-computer interfaces could help people with paralysis and other mobility issues.
But experts say that significant obstacles must be overcome before the technology is ready for most users.
You might soon be able to control your computer using only your thoughts, thanks to a recent flurry of developments in the field.
A company backed by money from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is testing brain-controlled computing on humans. Synchron implants a device through the blood vessels to allow people with no or minimal physical mobility to operate technology such as cursors and smart home devices using their minds.
“Ongoing developments in brain and computational sciences, as well as those in physiological sensing/transmitting and computational engineering, are rapidly allowing for iterative progress to ever more expansive and capable applications in real-world use settings,” Dr. James Giordano, a professor of Neurology and Ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC. told Lifewire in an email interview.
Think and Type
In 2020, the FDA fast-tracked the testing of Synchron’s brain gadget because it could improve treatment for debilitating or life-threatening conditions. Synchron is enrolling patients in a trial, hoping to show that the technology is safe to put in humans.
It is mind reading for the masses.
The company’s brain interface, known as a brain-computer interface or BCI, is inserted through the blood vessels. The device uses tiny sensors and goes on the vein next to the motor cortex. An antenna pulls in the brain data that it sends out of the body to external devices.
“This technology holds great promise for people with paralysis who want to maintain a level of independence,” said Bruce Campbell, the co-author of a study on the company’s technology, in a news release. “The Stentrode enables a form of motor restoration, with individuals able to use the switches to communicate and engage with their digital world.”
Giordano said that devices like Synchron’s would eventually enable brain-based direct control of various devices, including household technology, transportation, and heavy machinery.
Osvaldas Putkis, the Engineering R&D Head at the company Neurotechnology, said in an email that BCI systems could already generate commands for general computing activities such as selecting where to click on a screen. He predicted that the next technological breakthrough would be translating EEG (electroencephalogram) scans into words, essentially providing the ability to read a person’s thoughts.
One of BCI’s most significant benefits is the ability to translate brain activity into a command that a computer or device can understand, Putkis said. Other methods of measuring brain activity, such as single-cell recording or fMRI, are invasive.
“BCI offers immediate connection between the brain and the computer, using just a headset,” Putkis added. “The benefit of this is that it will bring BCI to a wider adoption within the market, as the required technical expertise and resources to access brain signals will be significantly reduced. It is mind reading for the masses.”
Despite the enthusiasm of technology boosters, experts say that significant obstacles remain before you can play Xbox games with your mind.
Putkis said that the main issue facing companies developing BCI involves high interference levels in brain activity. It is difficult to isolate single thoughts and translate them into actionable commands. The less invasive the method used in implants to receive the brain signal, the more interference and, therefore, the less clarity.
Nikolas Williams, a researcher at the company EMOTIV, which is working on brain interface technology, said in an email interview that “we’re a long way” from being able to do general computing tasks using just our brains.
“Current BCI allows people to move a cursor or perform other simple actions,” Williams added. “To perform these simple motor actions generally requires a decent amount of training or pairing the thought with the intended action repeatedly.”
Williams said that unlike invasive BCI, where sensors are placed directly into the brain, non-invasive BCI sits outside the body. This means the brain signals it measures very small, contaminated by noise outside noise from the outside world, and challenges to pinpoint the actual brain areas that are generating them. He added that more sensitive hardware and more sophisticated software would help overcome this, but it will take time.
“Getting to a place where we can use our brain signals to perform the complex motor tasks required to efficiently interact with a computer like we currently do with a keyboard and mouse is a long way off,” Williams said.