According to an English research team, practical neuroprosthetics and neuro-orthotics are closer to becoming a reality. Researchers at the University of Leicester; Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne; and Imperial College London are working on a government-sponsored research program to develop an implantable microchip that can read brain signals, analyze them, then wirelessly transmit them through the skull to wearable robotic devices.
According to The Engineer, the program is being developed through a £1 million grant and is intended to refine existing sensor, analysis, and transmitter technology into the form of a one-centimeter-wide battery-powered chip that can be implanted directly into the brain. The chip would read brain signals, process them using decoding algorithms, then send them as commands to a computerized orthosis or prosthesis.
A main focus of the project is reducing the bandwidth needed to transmit practical data out of a prototype chip. Similar implantable devices have already been used to allow monkeys to control computer cursors and robotic arms using thought alone. However, those experiments used a cable to transmit data through the skull, which would not be feasible for use in human patients. Researcher Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, PhD, told The Engineer, “It’s not just an aesthetical issue; it’s also a hygienic issue because if you have a cable, this means you have a hole in the skull, and this means you have more risk for infection.”
Quian Quiroga also said that he sees another possible use for the chip. Potentially, it could bridge damaged connections between the motor cortex and motor neurons in the spinal cord, allowing people with spinal cord injury to move under their own power. The chip would collect action impulses in the motor cortex, process the data, and send appropriate signals to an implanted stimulator below the injury. The stimulator could then direct the limbs.
Quian Quiroga told The Engineer that using the chip for spinal stimulation is still a distant possibility but that with successful animal trials, patients could be using the chip to control robotic devices in as little as five years.