Brain-Controlled Devices May Help Transcend Paralysis and Speech Problems

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The vast popularity of the movie Avatar underscores the increasingly tangible future possibility of transcending paralysis by technological means. A recent article on CNN’s web site presented a sweeping review of current technological research and development of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for a wide range of uses, from video games and advanced military equipment to enabling a paralyzed spinal cord injury patient to walk again and allowing traumatic brain injury patients to transcend speech problems with electronic telepathic brain implants.

The electrical power produced by the human brain is “strong enough to move robots, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbswith the help of an external processor,” the CNN article reported. BCI technology takes two distinct formsinvasive and noninvasive. The invasive forms of BCI involve implanting electrodes into the brain, and the noninvasive methods employ electrodes on the scalp.

Many researchers focus on neuroprosthetics. Melody Moore Jackson, the director of Georgia Tech University’s BrainLab, helped to construct the Aware Chair, a smart wheelchair that is controlled by a patient’s brain activity. Other researchers are developing robots that respond to mental commands to assist paralyzed people around the house.

CNN reported that the Pentagon’s technology research division, DARPA, is currently working on a research initiative that would allow soldiers to communicate secretly with one another via electronic telepathy implants. The implications of this research hold promise for traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury victims with speech and communication difficulties.

A California company, Neurosky, is developing BCI-based games to help Alzheimer’s patients develop improved memory skills. Other technology developers are exploring BCI devices to treat blindness, to prevent truckers from falling asleep at the wheel, and to view your own brainwave activity on your laptop.

The possibilities are endless with brain-controlled devices. The main barrier to many of the technologies now being considered for mass production is one of cost; many of the BCI-based devices are extremely expensive. Technology researchers hope to cut those costs as BCIs become more common. The CNN article reported, “Every breakthrough brings the most advanced BCI technologies closer to the mass market. Jackson says she foresees a day when people with disabilities can spend a few hundred dollars instead of $20,000 on a workable system.”

With current technology and research trends, paralysis and other brain and spinal cord injuries may be on their way to becoming reversible conditions. Time will tell how much of a role BCIs will play in that process.

References:

Hammock, Anne. (December 30, 2010) “The future of brain-controlled devices.” Retrieved on January 1, 2010 from the CNN website: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TECH/12/30/brain.controlled.computers/?imw=Y

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