A neural interface that could restore mobility to paralysed patients is ready for human trials.
In 2011, University of Melbourne neurologist Dr Thomas Oxley was travelling in New York when he was invited to have a chat with the military neurologist directing the prosthetic limb program for DARPA, the research unit of the U.S. Department of Defense. While there, Oxley suggested that it might be possible to allow paraplegics and quadriplegics to move by directing an exoskeleton with their thoughts – without the need for complex and invasive brain surgery. Impressed, DARPA gave Oxley a grant to pursue his idea. The DARPA funding was eventually extended with additional grants from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and a group made up of more than 39 senior researchers from engineering, science and medicine departments at the University of Melbourne succeeded in creating the device, called the stentrode.
There have been many recent innovations which use headsets to create a link between computers and the brain, such as a device which can aid concentration or a helmet that can help users to become calmer. The stentrode is also a neural interface, but one which is designed to sit inside a blood vessel next to the brain’s motor cortex. It is inserted into a blood vessel in the brain using a catheter, and resembles a small net-like ‘basket’ wired with electrodes. These electrodes sit on the wall of the blood vessel, next to the brain tissue, and record brainwave activity. This is then coded into software that is used to move a robotic exoskeleton attached to the arms or legs. Users visualise movements, and the signals are transferred to the exoskeleton, which moves the users’ limbs.
Oxley and chief engineer Dr Nick Opie, co-founded a company to translate their research into reality. After recently raising USD 10 million, the Palo Alto and Melbourne-based company, Synchron, is ready to begin human trials. A select group of paralysed patients will be chosen for the trial, where they will be implanted with the stentrode. If the trial succeeds, the technology could become commercially available in as little as six years. What other uses could there be for a device that allows people to move robots with their mind?