eLife digest | High performance communication by people with paralysis using an intracortical brain-computer interface

Open accessCopyright infoDownload PDFDownload figures

High performance communication by people with paralysis using an intracortical brain-computer interface

eLife digest

Affiliation details

Stanford University, United States; Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology, United States; Emory University, United States; Massachusetts General Hospital, United States; Brown University, United States; Rehabilitation R&D Service, Department of VA Medical Center, United States; Case Western Reserve University, United States; Louis Stokes VA Medical Center, United States; Harvard Medical School, United States

People with various forms paralysis not only have difficulties getting around, but also are less able to use many communication technologies including computers. In particular, strokes, neurological injuries, or diseases such as ALS can lead to severe paralysis and make it very difficult to communicate. In rare instances, these disorders can result in a condition called locked-in syndrome, in which the affected person is aware but completely unable to move or speak.

Several researchers are looking to help people with severe paralysis to communicate again, via a system called a brain-computer interface. These devices record activity in the brain either from the surface of the scalp or directly using a sensor that is surgically implanted. Computers then interpret this activity via algorithms to generate signals that can control various tools, including robotic limbs, powered wheelchairs or computer cursors. Such tools would be invaluable for many people with paralysis.

Pandarinath, Nuyujukian et al. set out to study the performance of an implanted brain-computer interface in three people with varying forms of paralysis and focused specifically on a typing task. Each participant used a brain-computer interface known as “BrainGate” to move a cursor on a computer screen displaying the letters of the alphabet. The participants were asked to “point and click” on letters – similar to using a normal computer mouse – to type specific sentences, and their typing rate in words per minute was measured. With recently developed computer algorithms, the participants typed faster using the brain-computer interface than anyone with paralysis has ever managed before. Indeed, the highest performing participant could, on average, type nearly 8 words per minute.

The next steps are to adapt the system so that brain-computer interfaces can control commercial computers, phones and tablets. These devices are widely available, and would allow paralyzed users to take advantage of a range of applications that can be easily downloaded and customized. This development might enable brain-computer interfaces to not only allow people with neurological disorders to communicate, but also assist other people with paralysis in a number of ways.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.18554.002