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World’s first wireless brain-computer interface is successfully tested on the human brain

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The first wireless brain-computer interface (BCI) system is not only giving people with paralysis the ability to type on computer screens with their minds, but the innovation is also giving them freedom to do so anywhere.

Traditional BCIs are tethered to a large transmitter with long cables, but a team from Brown University has cut the cords and replaced them with a small transmitter that sits atop the user’s head.

The redesigned equipment is just two inches in diameter and connects to an electrode array within the brain’s motor cortex by means of the same port used by wired systems.

The trials, dubbed BrainGate,’ showed two men paralyzed by spinal injuries were able to type and click on a tablet just by thinking of the action, and did so with similar point-and-click accuracy and typing speeds as those with a wired system.

A participant in the BrainGate clinical trial uses wireless transmitters that replace the cables normally used to transmit signals from sensors inside the brain. The trialsallowed men with  spinal injuries were able to type and click on a tablet just by thinking of the action

A participant in the BrainGate clinical trial uses wireless transmitters that replace the cables normally used to transmit signals from sensors inside the brain. The trialsallowed men with  spinal injuries were able to type and click on a tablet just by thinking of the action

The innovation is similar to BCI Elon Musk’s Neuralink is developing, which is also a wireless device implanted in the brain.

However, Musk’s technology is not visible like BrainGate, but has only been tested in monkeys and pigs – BrainGate is the first to conduct successful human trials.

John Simeral, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown University, a member of the BrainGate research consortium and the study’s lead author, said: ‘We’ve demonstrated that this wireless system is functionally equivalent to the wired systems that have been the gold standard in BCI performance for years.’

‘The signals are recorded and transmitted with appropriately similar fidelity, which means we can use the same decoding algorithms we used with wired equipment.

The redesigned equipment is just two inches in diameter and connects to an electrode array within the brain's motor cortex by means of the same port used by wired systems.

The redesigned equipment is just two inches in diameter and connects to an electrode array within the brain’s motor cortex by means of the same port used by wired systems.

The innovation is similar to BCI Elon Musk's Neuralink (pictured) is developing, which is also a wireless device implanted in the brain. However, Musk's technology is not visible like BrainGate, but has only been tested in monkeys and pigs

The innovation is similar to BCI Elon Musk’s Neuralink (pictured) is developing, which is also a wireless device implanted in the brain. However, Musk’s technology is not visible like BrainGate, but has only been tested in monkeys and pigs

‘The only difference is that people no longer need to be physically tethered to our equipment, which opens up new possibilities in terms of how the system can be used.’

The trial participants included a a 35-year-old man and a 63-year-old man who are both paralyzed by spinal cord injuries.

Each were able to use the BCI in their homes, compared to previous work that had to be done in a lab. 

Unencumbered by cables, the participants were able to use the BCI continuously for up to 24 hours, giving the researchers long-duration data including while participants slept.  

Leigh Hochberg, an engineering professor at Brown, a researcher at Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science and leader of the BrainGate clinical trial, said: ‘We want to understand how neural signals evolve over time.’

‘With this system, we’re able to look at brain activity, at home, over long periods in a way that was nearly impossible before. 

Unencumbered by cables, the participants were able to use the BCI continuously for up to 24 hours, giving the researchers long-duration data including while participants slept. Pictured is an earlier version on the BCI that included a long cable

Unencumbered by cables, the participants were able to use the BCI continuously for up to 24 hours, giving the researchers long-duration data including while participants slept. Pictured is an earlier version on the BCI that included a long cable

‘This will help us to design decoding algorithms that provide for the seamless, intuitive, reliable restoration of communication and mobility for people with paralysis.’

The latest study builds off the researcher’s initial BrainGate trials that began in 2012, but used a wired system to allow participants to manipulate prosthetics by thinking of a specific movement.

That work has been followed by a steady stream of refinements to the system, as well as new clinical breakthroughs that have enabled people to type on computers, use tablet apps and even move their own paralyzed limbs.

Study co-author Sharlene Flesher, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and is now a hardware engineer at Apple, said: ‘The evolution of intracortical BCIs from requiring a wire cable to instead using a miniature wireless transmitter is a major step toward functional use of fully implanted, high-performance neural interfaces,’ 

‘As the field heads toward reducing transmitted bandwidth while preserving the accuracy of assistive device control, this study may be one of few that captures the full breadth of cortical signals for extended periods of time, including during practical BCI use.’

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