Machines that connect to the human brain to gather and interpret its electrical signals have wide-ranging potential, from enabling paralyzed people control over robotic prostheses to supplementing human intelligence so it keeps pace with artificial intelligence. The team behind a project known as BrainGate have now demonstrated a wireless version of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology that can read and transmit neural signals at a bandwidth that is on par with wired systems, opening up exciting new possibilities in neuroscience research as well as patient care.
The idea behind BCIs is to monitor the electrical activity taking place in the brain and decode how that relates to the user’s thoughts and intentions. By recognizing that a certain pattern of brain activity correlates with a desire to raise a right hand in a paralyzed person, for example, the brain-computer interface can turn that into a command for a prosthetic arm that then executes the movement.
And we’ve seen many exciting advances with these kinds of systems of late. They have allowed for exoskeletons to be controlled via thoughts to kick soccer balls, allowed quadriplegic women to drink coffee, and even allowed paraplegics to experience a sense of touch.
The team behind BrainGate, which is a consortium of scientists from a number of US universities and institutions, has been at the vanguard of this technology for decades. One major roadblock, for this team and all others in the field, is that for brain-computer interfaces to be able to gather truly meaningful amounts of data in real-time, they need to be implanted in the brain and tethered to computer systems that decode the signals, rather than monitor activity non-invasively through layers of skull and tissue, like an EEG cap.
This is the motivation behind Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup, which aims to develop a brain-computer interface that can do the job wirelessly and discreetly, and just such an approach is indeed a widely-held ambition for researchers in the area. The BrainGate team now claims to have achieved this with its latest system, which it says is the first device to transmit the full spectrum of signals recorded by an intracortical sensor.