Before the opening match of the 2014 World Cup in São Paulo, Juliano Pinto, a young paraplegic Brazilian, was brought out onto the sidelines wearing a huge exoskeleton. Atop his head was a cap that monitored his brain waves and sent the information to a computer, which then translated the signals and fed them down to the mechanical structure strapped to his body. As the crowd of 50,000 looked on, Pinto’s foot flicked—and a soccer ball slid down an inclined ramp.
It wasn’t exactly a booming Pelé shot to the back of the net, but the kick still resonated around the world, which thrilled Miguel Nicolelis, who oversees the team that worked on the technology. Nicolelis is tired of the usual incremental milestones that mark scientific work. “I don’t believe in that,” he says. “That’s why I did the World Cup thing—I wanted to prove that people could walk again.”
Brain-computer interface technology (BCI) is a way to repair severe damage done to the mind-body bridge by injury or disease. It’s a medical science still very much in the experimental stages, but patients of brain-stem strokes, spinal cord injuries, Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and more are now taking part in trials that, neuro-researchers hope, will make them able to communicate and move again one day.
The goal is to return full control of the body to a patient. The problem is that the brain is notoriously hard to read. Every time your brain sends a signal to your body, each individual brain cell emits a whole bunch of pulses—you can hear a “pop, pop, pop” on devices used to measure brain waves. If you are trying to get your hand to move to the right, the brain might fire 10 times. But only one of those actually means "move hand to the right." The rest are just noise that needs to be screened out.
The way to do that, neuroscientists think, is to have an electrode—an electrical conductor—monitor brain activity measured in wavelengths, as exactly as possible. As a beginning, John Donoghue, founder of the neuroscience department at Brown University, who is working with an international team of researchers on a project called BrainGate, developed a chip smaller than a penny and fine as a hair. Containing about 100 electrodes, the chip is implanted in the motor cortex, where its electrodes pick up the electric pulses from nearby neurons and transmit them via cables to a computer, which deciphers them and tells an external object—a computer cursor or a robotic arm—to move. The patient thinks, Move the robot leg; the computer makes it so.
Read more here: