Train the Brain, Hit a Target

To somebody peeking into this little room, I'm just a middle-aged guy wearing a polka-dotted blue shower cap with a bundle of wires sticking out the top, relaxing in a recliner while staring at a computer screen.

But in my imagination, I'm sitting bolt upright on a piano bench playing Chopin's Military Polonaise (search).

Why? Because there's a little red box motoring across that screen, and I'm hoping my fantasy will change my brain waves just enough to make it rise and hit a target.

Some people have learned to hit such targets better than 90 percent of the time. During this, my first of 12 training sessions, I succeed 58 percent of the time — not much better than the 50 percent I could get by chance alone.

Bottom line: Over the past half-hour, I've displayed just a bit more mental prowess than you'd expect from a bowl of Froot Loops.

This isn't some far-out video game. I'm visiting one of many labs that are pursuing a complex but straightforward goal: to use electrical signals from the brain as instructions to computers and other machines, allowing paralyzed people to communicate, move around and control their environment literally without moving a muscle.

Volunteers working elsewhere on such projects have done far more impressive things with their brain signals (search) lately than I have:

— A quadriplegic (search) man in Massachusetts has shown he can change TV channels, turn room lights on and off, open and close a robotic hand and sort through messages in a mock e-mail program.

— Seven paralyzed patients near Stuttgart, Germany, have been surfing the Internet and writing letters to friends from their homes.

— At a lab in Switzerland, two healthy people learned to steer a 2-inch, two-wheeled robot — sort of like a tiny wheelchair — through a dollhouse-sized floor plan.

And at labs in several universities, monkeys operate mechanical arms with just their brains.

Some researchers talk about taking the technology much farther someday: using brain signals to reanimate paralyzed limbs, for example, or to control "wearable robots (search)," mechanical devices worn over arms or legs to restore movement. And while today's brain-driven typing programs produce only a few characters per minute, future technology might use brain signals to operate a speech synthesizer, restoring the ability to talk.