Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Wired Brain

Controlling objects with thought is becoming a reality.

© Alamy

The tiny sensor consists of an array of 100 electrodes to capture signals from the brain.

© Alamy
Researchers have reported success is using an integrated cicuit, wired directly to the brain of a man with quadraplegia, to enable the man to contol a computer. At News@nature.com, there is a description of the process. It involved implanting a chip with 100 electrodes, each getting input from a single neuron. In the single case so far, the man was able to use a remote control for a TV set, send email, and play computer games.

The report did not say what his wife thought about him having control of the TV.

The report also mentions other techniques that potentially could offer similar benefits to patients with various kinds of paralysis. Some of the techiniques would be noninvasive. The authors caution that "the field is still waiting for a breakthrough," in that the current method requires extensive training to use.

Although it is not mentioned in the article, it occurs to me that an implantable device could have an additional uses, besides the control of a computer interface. It has been known for years that the brain has a limited capacity to rewire itself after an injury. For example, damage to the speech center in the brain leads to difficulty speaking, but some of that ability can be regained, as other parts of the brain figure out how to take over the function of the damaged part.

Granted, it would take decades of research to do, but it may be possible to use implanted electrodes to enhance the retraining process. I also could imagine a scenario in which implanted electrodes are used to exercise certain parts of the brain. This could, potentially, help slow the process of cognitive decline in a condition such as vascular dementia.

Yes, it's pure speculation, but isn't that what debate nights are for?