Electronics reading minds: Paralyzed man’s arm understands brainwaves

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In the first successful operation of its kind doctors from an Ohio university used electronics on a paralyzed patient, enabling him to move an arm with just his thoughts by connecting an implant in his brain to electrodes placed inside the arm.

Scientists at Case Western Reserve University were able to succeed in establishing a readable brain signal by using electrodes that can read thoughts being sent via the brain implant, allowing freedom of movement. The identity of the patient remained sealed under the privacy laws.

This marks the first time where brain signals are being successfully recognized by electrodes installed inside the arm, MIT Technology Review cited a biomedical engineer at Case Western, Robert Kirsch.

This is a big step forward in further developments of transmitting brain signals to paralyzed patients’ limbs.

However, the arm movements following the operation are still being described as not smooth enough.

“It’s not a fluid natural movement like you are picking up a cup of coffee to drink it,” one of the leaders of BrainGate, John Donoghue said. “But the fact that they got a person to control their own body, to stimulate muscles in a specific way to make them move, and do it from a small patch of brain, is incredible.”

What is unique about this particular case is that the patient has a spinal injury and cannot move his arms at all. For the operation, doctors implanted two bunches of silicon electrodes, known as Utah arrays, into the volunteer’s motor cortex - part of the brain responsible for movement planning. The operation took place nine months ago.

The second half of the process was inserting over 16 electrodes into the patient’s right arm and hand. Electrical impulses then trigger muscle contraction once received.

The best results prior to this breakthrough was another Ohio man with partial arm paralysis getting a chance to close and open his hand using just his thoughts after getting a brain implant. Experiments in the field have been going on for about 20 years.