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‘Life-Altering’ Brain Chip Lets Paralysed Patients Control Computers With Their Mind

by : Hannah Smith on : 29 Oct 2020 11:35
University Of Melbourne/Allen Institute for Brain Science

A tiny brain implant no bigger than a paperclip has given people suffering from paralysis a new lease of life, allowing them to control computers without ever lifting a finger.

Yesterday, October 28, California-based startup Synchron published results of a study that showed their ‘Stentrode’ chip successfully enabled patients to independently use a computer with their minds.

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The Stentrode is a sensor that, when implanted in one of the brain’s blood vessels, is able to record neural signals and translate them into commands through an AI-based transmitter strapped to the patient’s chest.

'Life-Altering' Brain Chip Lets Paralysed Patients Control Computers With Their Mind'Life-Altering' Brain Chip Lets Paralysed Patients Control Computers With Their MindSynchron

Patients in the trial were taught to think about specific physical movements, for example tapping their left ankle, which the transmitter then translates as clicking the left mouse button. Combined with eye-tracking technology already commonly used by people with paralysis, the brain chip has enabled it’s users to perform basic everyday tasks that were either not possible, or took a long time without the technology.

Phil O’Keefe, a 60-year-old Australian suffering from ALS, previously took four hours to send a single email, but after receiving the implant in April 2020, he says now he can do it in just a few minutes.

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Two patients achieved an average click accuracy of 92% and 93%, as well as typing speeds of 14 and 20 characters per minute, MailOnline reports.

Dr. Peter Mitchell, who operated on the trial patients, said he was surprised at how effective the Stentrode chip had been.

He told the Wall Street Journal:

Within two or three months… the patients were already doing far more than we thought we’d be doing that quickly with a prototype device.

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Synchron says that, unlike other prototypes of similar implanted technology, the Stentrode does not require actual brain surgery, and can instead be inserted in a similar way to a pacemaker.

That doesn’t mean the procedure is without risks – the implants carry the risk of rupturing their host blood vessels, which would most likely be fatal – so progress on the technology is understandably very cautious.

For many of the millions of people all over the world suffering from spinal injuries and neurodegenerative conditions though, the risk may be worth it.

'Life-Altering' Brain Chip Lets Paralysed Patients Control Computers With Their Mind'Life-Altering' Brain Chip Lets Paralysed Patients Control Computers With Their MindSynchron
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Graham Felstead, 76, was the first patient to receive Synchron’s implant in April 2019, and he says that the technology has been ‘life-altering’.

He said:

My condition being terminal, it was really a question of, ‘Do I want a quality of life or do I just want to sit and watch television all day?’

It’s incredible to gain this level of independence back.

There are a number of tech companies racing to build effective brain-sensing technology, taking advantage of the latest developments in AI and machine-learning technology. Perhaps most famously, Elon Musk revealed earlier this year that his Neuralink company had implanted a brain chip into a pig named Gertrude.

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Topics: Science, brain, Now, Tech

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Wall Street Journal
  1. Wall Street Journal

    Tiny Brain Implants Hold Big Promise For Immobilized Patients