Science and technology have gone a long way in aiding people with physical disabilities, including those who are totally or partially paralyzed. Most of those technologies come in the form of wearables or exoskeletons, which can work well enough to help them lead a normal life. However, controlling those exoskeletons is a matter of concern when it comes to a paralyzed individual. What if you could control your exoskeleton with your brain? Well, it may sound like science fiction but there is actually a real device that could allow you to control your robotic limb with your thoughts.
Known as Stentrode, the device is developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne. The stent is inserted directly into the jugular vein in the neck via a small incision, without doctors having to perform any kind of surgery. Then, it’s transmitted to a blood vessel in the brain. There the Stentrode can measure electrical signals from brain cells nearby on the outside of the blood vessel wall and relays the information to a recording device in the wearer’s chest. It then wirelessly transmits the information to an external computer that will control the exoskeleton.
When the wearer thinks about a certain action – such as “move left fist,” the brain fires in a particular way. By recognizing the exact pattern of brain signal, the brain-computer interfaces effectively read human thoughts and turn them into actions.
Albeit electrodes are non-invasive, you can’t always rely on them. Especially when they are attached outside of the head, they have to receive signals through the skull. It requires a surgery and the brain always considers the electrodes as foreign objects, means it covers those electrodes in scar tissue, hampering their function.
The Stentrode has advantages over the electrode. It, on the other hand, is less invasive. It can receive brain signals with high integrity and requires no surgery. Last year, the device was tested on live sheep.
“The brain doesn’t even know it’s there,” says David Grayden at the University of Melbourne. “The recordings are not quite as detailed as those from directly implanted electrodes, but they’re close.”
A critical trial will start on up to five patients at the Royal Melbourne Hospital next year. The reasons behind their paralysis vary from a stroke to a spinal cord injury to muscular dystrophy.