Before Firefox was Mozilla’s popular alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, it was a 1982 Cold War sci-fi thriller flick. It starred Clint Eastwood as an American pilot charged with the task of breaking into a top secret Soviet military facility to steal a prototype jet fighter (called Firefox, as you might imagine) that can defy radar and is — most important — controlled by a neural interface that allows the pilot to fly the thing with [Tommy Chong voice] the power of his brain, man.
When I was 12, the idea seemed pretty cool (cooler than the movie itself, which, as I remember it, was more Raise the Titanic than For Your Eyes Only). Of course, my first thoughts when pondering the application of such neural interface technology gravitated toward how much more awesome video games could be! The Atari 2600’s simple joystick and one-button controller was about the right speed for my clumsy fingers, but anything more complicated (like the Intellivision disc pad or the coin operated Defender down at the local arcade) rendered me helpless against my friends who were gifted with infinitely better hand-eye coordination.
Now that it’s 2011, I might like a rematch with some of the new controllers available to the average consumer: Nintendo’s Wii remote, Microsoft’s Kinect — heck, even Sony’s PlayStation Move would do my game more favors than the Nintendo 64’s buttonfest ever did. But none of these would compare with the advantages of having my on-screen persona respond directly to the prompting of my thoughts via neural interface. I’d be like an arcade
Clint Eastwood Bruce Lee! But while I’ve been spending my life selfishly lamenting over how much better I could be at video games [Ray Bolger voice] if I only had a brain (controller), medical scientists have been concentrating their efforts into creating neural interfaces to assist the disabled.
In Providence, Rhode Island, a team of researchers at Brown University has reported a breakthrough with its BrainGate neural interface technology. Implanted 2.7 years ago with a chip that is only a fraction of an American dime in size, a tetraplegic woman is able to point and click an on-screen cursor with greater than 90 percent accuracy using only the power of her brain, man! Essentially, she imagines moving her hand, the BrainGate neural interface’s combination of hardware and software interprets and translates the brain’s signals, and the cursor responds accordingly. The findings are featured today in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
“Our objective with the neural interface is to reach the level of performance of a person without a disability using a mouse,” said report lead author, VA researcher, and assistant professor of engineering at Brown, John Simeral. “These results highlight the potential for an intracortical neural interface system to provide a person that has locked-in syndrome with reliable, continuous point-and-click control of a standard computer application.”
In addition to the BrainGate neural interface’s astounding success percentage, it’s no small wonder that the sensor chip itself has survived inside of a human body for almost three years so far. While researchers concede that the device is less effective than it was when it was first installed, and not all of the electrodes are in working order anymore, it’s provided a rich survey of problems that can be expected in similar devices and has helped expand the technology for longer use in future. As the neural interface becomes more precise (almost there!) and more durable (working on it), its practical applications seem limitless: from prosthetic limbs that respond like the real thing (think Luke Skywalker’s replacement hand) to… yes, game controllers and touch-free computer interfaces, this is technology to keep an eye on. The BrainGate neural interface team has an official site, and I’ve bookmarked it to keep track of how its efforts progress. Fascinating stuff!