Brain Implants: Controlling Technology With Your Mind

a person wearing a mask

It sounds like something out of science fiction but researchers around the world are making progress linking our brains and minds directly to our technology. One day this sort of connection could allow paralyzed individuals to control prosthetic limbs as if they were their own. “Locked in” people, those that, for many reasons can no longer communicate with the outside world could direct voice synthesis devices, effectively regaining their voices. It would seem that cyborgs are on the rise.

Controlling Technology Directly With Thought

One group of researchers recently made headlines with a clinical trial that allowed patients suffering from tetraplegia, a condition that renders them unable to move their limbs, to control a computer tablet using nothing but thought. Technicians with Braingate, a leader in the field, implanted a tiny interface chip into the motor cortex of the patients’ brains and then wired this to processors which interpreted signals from the chip and translated them into on-screen cursor movement.

It took some time but eventually the study participants we able to learn to control the cursor as if it were a part of their body. They were able to use the device as if they were touching the screen directly, and could send text and email messages, select music tracks and even play a simple on-screen piano. They simply thought about where they wanted the cursor to go, set their intention and the cursor responded accordingly.

Allowing Paraplegics Renewed Control of Their Bodies

Consider Bill Kochevar’s story. After a bicycling accident he was paralyzed from the shoulders down. His prospects for ever using his limbs again were bleak. Until he was connected to a brain-computer interface, or BCI. This device takes signals directly from his brain and transmits them to a series of 36 muscle stimulating electrodes embedded in his arm. This allowed the signals to bypass his damaged spine and control the muscles using the technological intervention. After spending eight years trapped in his body Bill was able to use his arm again to feed himself.

One can imagine that as this technology improves and shrinks in size, and as researchers learn to decode subtler signals from the brain’s motor cortex, unobtrusive muscle stimulating electrodes could be wired throughout Bill’s and other patient’s entire bodies allowing renewed, self-directed use of their limbs again.

Brain / Tech Interface Wearables

Another group of scientists has discovered that you don’t need to embed technology in the brain at all to link the mind with technology. CTRL-labs, a startup backed by tech giants Alphabet and Amazon is developing a wrist-wearable roughly the size of a watch that can tap into nerve signals sent from the brain to the hand, decode the information and then use it to control computers and other devices.

Initially the company thinks the technology will be useful for VR and augmented reality applications where the device could be used to control virtual hands. But eventually they imagine using these unobtrusive wearables to allow amputees to control robotic, prosthetic hands as if they were their own without the need for brain or muscle implants.

As with a lot of science fiction, all it takes is groups of dedicated researchers to pull fantastical technologies right off the page and make them a reality. In the next 10 to 20 years direct brain/technology interfaces will likely be ubiquitous. And science fiction will be science fact.

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