New remote brain-computer interface could be game-changer for paralyzed
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In recent years, brain-computer interfaces (BCI) have successfully enabled study participants who lost the use of their limbs to control a mouse cursor, keyboard, mobile device, wheelchair and even a robotic arm that provides sensory feedback to the patient, simply by using their own mind.The BCI system involves implanting microelectrode arrays in a patient’s motor cortex, the area of the brain that naturally controls movement.BCI manufacturer Blackrock Neurotech and the University of Pittsburgh are working together to make studies more accessible to a greater population of candidates living with paralysis with the use of a compact, remote BCI system that can be used at home.
Researchers have made great strides toward eventually providing the more than 5 million people with paralysis in the U.S. more mobility and independence with the development of an experimental device called a brain-computer interface (BCI).
In recent years, BCIs have successfully enabled dozens of study participants who lost the use of their limbs after strokes, accidents or diseases such as multiple sclerosis, to control a mouse cursor, keyboard, mobile device, wheelchair and even a robotic arm that provides sensory feedback to the patient, simply by using their own mind. The technology could be a gamechanger to help those with paralysis return to work and communicate more quickly and effectively.
The BCI system involves implanting microelectrode arrays in a patient’s motor cortex, the area of the brain that naturally controls movement. Patients are then asked to imagine moving their own arm or hand, and the sensors in the motor cortex pick up those signals from the brain and transmit them as commands to an external device such as a computer cursor or a wheelchair.
While trials of the technology have been ongoing for years, participation has been limited due to logistics and geography, as paralysis volunteers in studies are required to travel to lab facilities on a regular basis.
But now, BCI manufacturer Blackrock Neurotech and the University of Pittsburgh are working together to make the studies more accessible to a greater population of candidates living with paralysis with the use of a compact, remote BCI system that can be used at home. Researchers will be able to test a broader range of study participants and collect more safety and efficacy data, a key step on the path to commercializing the technology.
“It is essentially a new version of the entire BCI system that is designed for in-house use,” Florian Solzbacher, co-founder and chairman of Blackrock Neurotech, a company that manufactures a suite of BCI technology, said in an interview.
“This was usually set up so all the studies and trials could only be done in the hospital or in a clinical research setting. And so that required participants to travel to the lab several times a week to work there. This creates a far more realistic setting,” he said.
Solzbacher said the device looks somewhat like an iPad with a small box the size of a cell phone that’s attached to a type of medical brace. The device can easily attach to a wheelchair and is light to carry. The software used during research trials has also been modified to be operated with little technical support. In the lab, experiments typically required rack mounted data acquisition systems and five or so computers to carry out the research. He said the at-home BCI can allow users to write their own emails or text messages and work on a computer.
“Being able to run things at home with a portable at-home system participants can start, or maybe a caretaker with no more knowledge than the lay person can start, is a big step,” Solzbacher said.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehabilitation and Neural Engineering Laboratory (RNEL) in 2020 demonstrated that a study participant could use a portable version of the BCI system at home to move a mouse cursor, play computer games and type out sentences. Pitt has been a leader in BCI research, successfully enabling a paralyzed man to operate a robotic arm and hand that provides tactile feedback directly to the man’s brain.
Pitt researchers say the new agreement with Blackrock Neurotech will lay the groundwork to scale up key trials.
“One of the current things we hear from participants is that they really want a device that they can have at home that will actually benefit them in their daily life,” Jennifer Collinger, researcher with the University of Pittsburgh’s RNEL, said.
“The trials that we’ve been running at the University of Pittsburgh and all of the other sites that are doing similar research right now, they’re essentially temporary studies where almost all of the experiments are happening in the lab, or at least there’s lab personnel supervising the system. What they really want to see is something they can use independently all the time.”
Blackrock Neurotech late last year was granted Breakthrough Device designation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its “MoveAgain” BCI system, which is similar to devices it plans to use in trials and hopes to be its first commercial BCI platform in 2023.
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