Published online 10 November 2003 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news031110-3


Pilot study may give quadriplegics computer control

Human trial scheduled for brain sensors that turn thought into action.

Brain impulses may think a cursor around a screen.Brain impulses may think a cursor around a screen.© GettyImages

Human trials of a device to give quadriplegics mouse control and computer access should start in the New Year, researchers announced this week at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The study, which builds on successful primate research, will assess the efficacy and safety of a device called Braingate in five patients with serious spinal cord injuries. "Our goal is to provide a new quality of life for paralyzed humans," says John Donoghue, chief scientific officer of Cyberkinetics in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the company developing the technology.

Many immobile patients still generate the brain signals for movement. Braingate recognizes these impulses and converts them into action on a computer screen. Monkeys fitted with the device shifted a cursor around a computer screen, explains Donoghue.

"It's an exciting time: science fiction is becoming science reality," says Douglas Weber, from the University of Alberta at Calgary Canada who studies neural prosthetics. Ultimately, similar setups could control robotic arms and wheelchairs he suggests.

Braingate comes in two parts, wired together. A tiny chip is implanted into the brain to record cell activity while an external processor converts the signals into computer instructions.

The chip is smaller than an aspirin and contains 100 electrodes, each thinner than a human hair. In monkey brains, it works for up to two years and can be removed and replaced easily.

“Science fiction is becoming science reality”

Douglas Weber
University of Alberta

The processor is PC sized. Future prototypes will be smaller and wireless, hopes Donoghue. The trial is scheduled for 2004, subject to approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Devices like this could help stroke and neurodegenerative disease patients. "It opens the doors to limitless possibilities," agrees Mohammad Mojarradi, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a specialist in brain-computer- interfaces. 

University of Alberta