It’s something that wouldn’t look out of place in the Star Wars world: prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, and computers that can be controlled by the host’s mind.
Mind-controlled prosthetics are closer than we think, and not (in a galaxy) far, far away.
Australian scientists are planning to conduct human trials within a year on a high-tech implant that transmits signals to and from the brain. If things go well, we could see this mind-control technology in a decade.
The little device is called a stentrode, and is about the size of a matchstick. It’s implanted in the blood vessel near the brain. The device picks up neuron signals from the brain, and reiterates them into electronic commands. From there, scientists hope to convert those commands to allow paralyzed patients to control limbs.
“The big breakthrough is that we now have a minimally invasive brain-computer interface device which is potentially practical for long-term use,” said Terry O’Brien, head of medicine at the Department of Medicine and Neurology at the University of Melbourne.
Currently, the only way to interpret brain signals requires complex open-brain surgery. The stentrode is simple in comparison; it’s inserted via a vein in the patient’s neck.
Researchers have already started testing the stentrode on animals, specifically how well the gizmo picks up neuron signals. And while successful animal trials are positive, it doesn’t necessarily equate to success in humans.
The rewards could outweigh the risks in this case.
“If it functions as it should at the (human) trial, it will be a massive breakthrough,” said Dr. Ganesh Naik, from the University of Technology Sydney.
The device would allow patients to communicate through a computer as well.
“People would need to be trained in how to think the right thoughts to make it work, like learning to play music. You need to learn it, but once you do, it becomes natural,” said Professor Clive May from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, who is working on the project.
The project is funded by the Australian government and the US military, whom sees applications for paraplegic veterans.