Technology to the Rescue! - How Brain-Computer Interfaces Are Revolutionizing Healthcare
Computer chips in people’s brains? That sounds like a reality straight out of a sci-fi film! But in today’s society, scientists have been doing extensive research on the use of brain implant technology to help with a super important task: rehabilitating paralyzed patients.
Let’s take a look into this technology, the recent discoveries made, and how companies are planning to adapt the technology for future use!
Technology Treating Paralysis
12 years ago, Gert-Jan Oskam was involved in a motorbike accident that left him paralyzed in his legs, arms, and torso. However, through involvement in a clinical study with Dr. Grégoire Courtine and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Gert-Jan was able to regain autonomous and almost natural walking abilities.
Utilizing technology, the scientists created a “digital bridge,” connecting Gert-Jan’s brain and his spinal cord despite his injuries. To create this “brain-spine interface,” an implant in Gert-Jan’s brain tracks signals passed in order to determine what movement Gert-Jan is trying to accomplish in his limbs. From there, these intentions are processed and translated through an external unit, becoming signals sent to an implant in Gert-Jan’s muscles to stimulate them and provoke movement.
In simple terms, when Gert-Jan simply thinks of moving his legs, the brain-spine interface uses technology to send this message to implants in his legs to cause them to move. Since his spine injury severed the link between his brain signals and his legs, causing paralysis, this new technology mends the gap, allowing him to walk again. Gert-Jan has been able to walk up to 330 feet with the new technology and can stand for a few minutes without assistance.
The big part about this discovery was the way Gert-Jan’s brain signals were interpreted by the technology. The team of scientists recorded data on the way Gert-Jan’s brain lit up when he tried to move different parts of his body - based on this information, a machine-learning algorithm was able to decode how his brain signals indicate what actions he was trying to accomplish with his limbs. It took many months and trial and error of collection of data and usage of these brain signals, but eventually, Gert-Jan was able to significantly move his lower body, quickly accomplishing walking and standing in only a few months!
How Is This Technology Being Used/Developed?
Currently, the technology developed can work in a limited range of spinal cord injuries, so it isn’t a universal solution to paralysis injuries. Additionally, the procedure is, of course, invasive, and there are many months of physical therapy and scientific work needed to fully adjust to the system. However, there is hope that further work on this technology could make it universal and accessible in future years.
In terms of the use of “brain chips” in general, there is the existence of Elon Musk’s company Neuralink, an organization also aimed to help disabled users to aid with mobility and vision impairments. Neuralink, rather than bridging a gap between the user’s brain and their limbs, wants to connect a user’s brain to a computer. So far, the company has tested its technology on monkeys. The brain chips interpret brain signals and relay them to Bluetooth devices in order to help blind and disabled people use technology as well as to treat these conditions in certain cases. While the specifics of this technology aren’t yet clear, Neuralink did gain FDA approval to begin testing on human patients, so it’s only a matter of time until we see what this technology is able to do.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more articles!