How to Command a Computer Just by Thinking

The first brain-computer interface device was implanted in a patient in the US earlier in July by a doctor at the medical center, Mount Sinai West, in New York, in an investigatory trial of the startup Synchron’s procedure to help patients suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) text by thinking. The procedure involved the doctor threading a 1.5-inch-long implant comprised of wires and electrodes into a blood vessel in the brain of a patient with ALS. The hope is that the patient, who’s lost the ability to move and speak, will be able to surf the web and communicate via email and text simply by thinking, and the device will translate the patient’s thoughts into commands sent to a computerSynchron, the startup behind the technology, has already implanted its devices in four patients in Australia, who haven’t experienced side effects and have been able to carry out such tasks as sending WhatsApp messages and making online purchases.

The implant was a major step forward in a nascent industry, putting the Brooklyn-based company ahead of competitors, including ahead of Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corp.

This surgery was special because of its implications and huge potential,” said Dr. Shahram Majidi, the neurointerventional surgeon who performed the procedure.This was the first procedure the company has performed in the US.

The brain-computer interface (BCI) has caught the attention of many in the technological field because its device, known as the stentrode, can be inserted into the brain without cutting through a person’s skull or damaging tissue. A doctor makes an incision in the patient’s neck and feeds the stentrode via a catheter through the jugular vein into a blood vessel nestled within the motor cortex. As the catheter is removed, the stentrode, a cylindrical, hollow wire mesh opens up and begins to fuse with the outer edges of the vessel. According to Majidi, the process is very similar to implanting a coronary stent and takes only a few minutes.

A second procedure then connects the stentrode via a wire to a computing device implanted in the patient’s chest. To do this, the surgeon must create a tunnel for the wire and a pocket for the device underneath the patient’s skin much like what’s done to accommodate a pacemaker. The stentrode reads the signals when neurons fire in the brain, and the computing device amplifies those signals and sends them out to a computer or smartphone via Bluetooth.

The stentrode then uses sixteen electrodes to monitor brain activity and record the firing of neurons when a person thinks. The signal strength improves over time as the device fuses deeper into the blood vessel and gets closer to the neurons. Software is used to analyze the patterns of brain data and match them with the the user’s goal.


High Speed Typing Brain-Computer Interface

The ancient art of handwriting has just pushed the field of brain-computer interface (BCI) to the next level. Researchers have devised a system that allows a person to communicate directly with a computer from his brain by imagining creating handwritten messages. The approach enables communication at a rate more than twice as fast as previous typing-by-brain experiments.

Researchers at Stanford University performed the study on a 65-year-old man with a spinal cord injury who had had an electrode array implanted in his brain. The scientists described the experiment recently in the journal Nature.

The big news from this paper is the very high speed,” says Cynthia Chestek, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study. “It’s at least half way to able-bodied typing speed, and that’s why this paper is in Nature.”

For years, researchers have been experimenting with ways to enable people to directly communicate with computers using only their thoughts, without verbal commands, hand movement, or eye movement. This kind of technology offers a life-giving communication method for people who are “locked in” from brainstem stroke or disease, and unable to speak.

Successful BCI typing-by-brain approaches so far typically involve a person imagining moving a cursor around a digital keyboard to select letters. Meanwhile, electrodes record brain activity, and machine learning algorithms decipher the patterns associated with those thoughts, translating them into the typed words. The fastest of these previous typing-by-brain experiments allowed people to type about 40 characters, or 8 words, per minute.

That we can do this at all is impressive, but in real life that speed of communication is quite slow. The Stanford researchers were able to more than double that speed with a system that decodes brain activity associated with handwriting. In the new system, the participant, who had been paralyzed for about a decade, imagines the hand movements he would make to write sentences.

We ask him to actually try to write—to try to make his hand move again, and he reports this somatosensory illusion of actually feeling like his hand is moving,” says Frank Willett, a researcher at Stanford who collaborated on the experiment.

A microelectrode array implanted in the motor cortex of the participant’s brain records the electrical activity of individual neurons as he tries to write. “He hasn’t moved his hand or tried to write in more than ten years and we still got these beautiful patterns of neural activity,” says Willett.

The new findings, published online in Nature, could spur further advances benefiting hundreds of thousands of Americans, and millions globally, who’ve lost the use of their upper limbs or their ability to speak due to spinal-cord injuries, strokes or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, said Jaimie Henderson, MD, professor of neurosurgery.

This approach allowed a person with paralysis to compose sentences at speeds nearly comparable to those of able-bodied adults of the same age typing on a smartphone,” said Henderson, the John and Jene Blume — Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor.” The goal is to restore the ability to communicate by text.”

The participant in the study produced text at a rate of about 18 words per minute. By comparison, able-bodied people of the same age can punch out about 23 words per minute on a smartphone.