Mind-Operated Computer for Spinal Cord Injury

A mind-operated computer may one day help people with spinal cord injuries communicate. It may sound like science fiction, but such a device already exists. It’s in its infancy, but early tests suggest that it could be the wave of the future.

The brain-computer interface was recently tested by researchers including Jonathan Wolpaw, MD, of New York State’s Department of Health. They recruited four participants, two of whom had spinal cord injuries.

Participants wore a cap embedded with electrodes that picked up brain waves and transmitted them to a computer. The computer changed these electrical signals into output that conveyed the user's intent. A program identified the brain waves that people could best control and used them to move a cursor to a target on a computer screen.

The high-tech gadget worked. All the participants were able to manipulate the cursor just by thinking about it. They improved with practice, and those with spinal cord injuries did best. That may be because they were especially motivated or due to brain changes stemming from their injuries.

Movement time, precision, and accuracy were similar to past results seen with electrodes implanted within the brain itself. That’s much riskier than wearing an electrode-studded cap.

Until now, noninvasive brain-computer interfaces could only handle simpler applications in one dimension. The new study shows that the technology can also work in two dimensions.

Next, researchers want to progress to three dimensions. Ultimately, the goal is to give people with spinal cord injuries and severe muscle disabilities a new way to communicate with the rest of the world.

The study appears in this week’s early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario

SOURCES: Wolpaw, J., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, early online edition, Dec. 6-10, 2004. News release, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.