Today, prosthetics feel and respond more like real limbs

Robotic limbs used to be a thing of science fiction. Bionic superheroes with chrome suits and body armor, while supercool in comic books, aren’t practical for modern prosthetics.

Advancements in STEM fields – medical and robotics alike – have enabled the creation of a prosthesis that can move by thought. By implanting a brain-computer interface (BCI) into the brain, the brain and the prosthesis communicate, and the prosthesis is thereby controlled by a single signal, according to
Researchers across the world are coming up with ideas on how to best incorporate sensory receptors into the mechanical limbs, so that amputees are able to feel all the same sensations they would have under normal circumstances.

For example, an artificial arm directly connected to the bone, nerves and muscles of a man functions more like a real arm, with range of motion and more precise control, according to, the website for the American Association of the Advancement of Science.

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Silicon Valley’s race to develop a brain-computer interface

Wentz has been involved with developing electronics for high-speed reading of data emitted by wireless implants. Already, the flow of information that can be collected from a mouse’s brain in real time outruns what a laptop computer can handle. The team also needs a way to interface with the human brain, hence the brain-computer interface. Boyden’s lab has worked on several concepts to do so, including needle-shaped probes with tiny electrodes etched onto their surface. Another idea is to record neural activity by threading tiny optical fibers through the brain’s capillaries, an idea roughly similar to Musk’s neural lace.

More sophisticated means of reading and writing to the brain are seen as potential ways to treat psychiatric disorders. Under a concept that Boyden calls “brain coprocessors,” it may be possible to create closed-loop systems that detect certain brain signals—say, those associated with depression—and shock the brain to reverse them. Some surgeons and doctors funded by another DARPA program are in the early stages of determining whether serious mental conditions can be treated in this way.

Boyden says Johnson’s $100 million makes a big difference to how he and his students view the entrepreneur’s goals. “A lot of neurotechnology has come and gone. But one thing is that it’s very expensive,” he says. “The inventing is expensive, the clinical work is expensive. It’s not easy. And here is someone putting money into the game.”

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The Mind-Controlled Bionic Arm With a Sense of Touch

In the first episode of Humans+, Motherboard dives into the world of future prosthetics, and the people working on closing the gap between man and machine. We follow Melissa Loomis, an amputee from Ohio, who had experimental nerve reversal surgery and is going to Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab to test out its latest Modular Prosthetic Limb, a cutting-edge bionic arm funded in part by DARPA. Neuro-interfacing machinery is a game changer in terms rehabilitating patients, but what possibilities do these advancements open for the future?

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A New Intracortical BCI Clocks Faster Typing Speeds Out of the Gate

Many people with ALS experience trouble speaking. To help them stay connected, researchers are developing brain-powered systems to type out words, much like texting people using smart phones. The approach, known as brain-computer interfaces, aims to bypass damaged sections of the central nervous system to allow people with ALS to reach out to family and friends without caregivers’ assistance.

But although many of these investigational devices enable people with paralysis to communicate accurately, the technologies introduced to date are extremely slow for communication purposes. Most recently, a wireless device developed by UMC Utrecht’s Nick Ramsey’s team in the Netherlands enabled a person with ALS to communicate independently but at only 2 letters/minute (see November 2016 news; Vansteensel et al., 2016).

Now, a research team led by Stanford’s Jaimie Henderson and Krishna Shenoy introduce an intracortical brain computer interface (iBCI)-based strategy that enabled people with paralysis to communicate up to 8 words (39.2 characters)/minute, more than 4 times faster than existing neural interfaces (Bacher et al., 2015). This is compared to 12-18 words per minute, the average time it takes for able-bodied people to text on their cell phone without word completion assistance (Hoggan et al., 2008; MacKenzie et al., 2009). The technology according to Stanford’s Krishna Shenoy could be adapted to operate digital devices including computers, tablets and smart phones.

The strategy uses decoding algorithms previously developed by Shenoy’s team, to translate brain activity into ‘point and click’ control commands that work much like using a computer mouse (Gilja et al., 2012; Gilja et al., 2015; Kao et al., 2016). The approach, which involves the pre-implantation of electrode arrays in the hand-operating region of the motor cortex, uses a cable to deliver neuronal signals to a computer interface. The device is one of a growing number of neurotechnologies being developed in collaboration with a consortium of neuroscientists, neurosurgeons and bioengineers known as BrainGate that aims to restore independence to people with paralysis in part, by helping them stay connected.

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The startup Neurable thinks its brain-computer interface will be fast and accurate enough for playing games in VR.

Virtual reality is still so new that the best way for us to interact within it is not yet clear. One startup wants you to use your head, literally: it’s tracking brain waves and using the result to control VR video games.

Boston-based startup Neurable is focused on deciphering brain activity to determine a person’s intention, particularly in augmented and virtual reality. The company uses dry electrodes to record brain activity via electroencephalography (EEG); then software analyzes the signal and determines the action that should occur.

“You don’t really have to do anything,” says cofounder and CEO Ramses Alcaide, who developed the technology as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. “It’s a subconscious response, which is really cool.”

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Cognichrome – An eeg, brain to computer interface (BCI), robot art painter.

The Cognichrome is an art installation (see which reads a person’s brain using an EEG and instructs a robot to paint the interpretation of the user’s thoughts on a real canvas. Using machine learning algorithms, the painting evolves as the wearer is mentally interacting with the device, as their mind is exposed to new videos from the device’s monitors. When they decide to stop they can take the canvas home with them.

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This newly developed chip could restore movement in people with damaged spinal cords

Researchers develop a new chip which transmits stronger and sharper signals to restore absent bodily movement in people with damaged spinal cords.

If a person suffers a spinal cord injury, they may lose movement in the limbs, but that does not mean that the brain is not able to send electrical impulses, nor that the limbs are not able to receive them, the problem is that the signal is lost when it reaches the damaged spinal cord, so if we manage to indicate another path, the problem would be solved.

With this idea in mind, they have created electrodes that transmit signals stronger and sharper than those currently used, capable of reaching receptors implanted in the extremities to recover lost movement.

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New material could deliver improvements to brain-computer interfaces

Research has been undertaken for quite a while to find a way to help those who suffer spinal cord injuries to regain limb mobility. One such approach has involved the use of a brain-computer interface in the form of an implanted chip which can then record and transmit signals.

Such interfaces typically rely upon electrodes to provide the physical connection with neurotransmitters. At present, thin-film platinum is at the cutting edge as far as electrode materials are concerned. However, longevity has become an issue as thin-film platinum electrodes have been prone to fracture and disintegration over time.

In response to this issue, Sam Kassegne, deputy director for The Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) at San Diego State University (SDSU), and colleagues developed electrodes out of ‘glassy carbon’. One major benefit of this form of carbon is that given its smoothness compared to thin-film platinum, corrosion becomes less of an issue while transmitting electrical signals. Another improvement gained through the use of glassy carbon is its superior carriage properties, with Kassegne saying that:

“You get about twice as much signal-to-noise. It’s a much clearer signal and easier to interpret.”

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