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The new Caltech prototype involves an upper control cylinder with MEMS motor assemblies that drive electrodes into contact with brain neurons. The device should improve neuroprosthetic lifespan and allow better control of devices.  (Source: Caltech Robotics Burdick Group)
New device looks to improve neural prosthetics for paralysis victims

For America's approximately 5,000 people who suffer cervical spinal cord injuries each year, typically resulting in quadriplegia, new brain-computer interfaces are not merely fun and games, they're a means to perhaps someday live a full life again and possibly regain some movement.  Standing in the way is the complexity of the in-tissue implants needed to gain more complex control.

A newly designed implant from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) aims to simplify the process of attaching miniature electrodes to brain neurons via robotic control using MEMS devices, tiny little motors.  The Caltech Robotics Burdick group is running the project.  The group is led by research engineers Michael Wolf, Joel Burdick, his mentor, Jorge Cham and Edward Branchaud.  According to researchers, this is the "first robotic approach to establishing an interface between computers and the brain by positioning electrodes in neural tissue". 

The research "could enhance the performance and longevity of emerging neural prosthetics, which allow paralyzed people to operate computers and robots with their minds" according to the researchers.  An early prototype of the system has been constructed.

The prototype is currently undergoing testing on non-human primates.  According to the researchers, the device "is designed to fit inside a standard laboratory cranial chamber, used for acute experiments in non-human primates, to allow semi-chronic operation. A semi-chronic design has the advantage that the device can be repositioned over a different region with minimal effort and without need for additional surgeries."

The device positions four electrodes to optimize action potentials.  Wolf describes the overall design of the device, stating, "Our approach consists of implanting a small robotic device (and accompanying control algorithm) with many individually-motorized electrodes that each autonomously locate, isolate, and track a neuron for long periods of time. To further complicate matters, we wish to find signals only from neurons dedicated ('tuned') to a particular task, say controlling an 'arm reach.' While the primary aim of such technology is for a neural interface for neuroprostheses, such a device may also advance the state-of-the-art experimental techniques for electrophysiology."

While the Caltech team is still working on fine tuning the MEMS design for the final version of the device, the software algorithm is complete.  The algorithm in many respects is the keystone of the project.  It was actually adapted from algorithms the U.S. military uses to track airplanes.  On a most basic level, the algorithm involves the motors slowly being powered to drive the probe down into a tissue.  As it picks up a signal it pushes the probe deeper until the signal deepens, in which case it backs up to position itself on the active neuron.

Neuroprosthetics, the science of using brain implants to power robotic limb movement, is a budding field of science, buoyed by recent better understanding of the human brain and new nanoelectronic designs.  However longevity is a major concern as cells in the brain can shift slightly and even slight shifts in an in-brain electrode probe could disconnect it. 

The advance of medical science is frustratingly slow for the afflicted, but with improvements such as the new Caltech interface, quadriplegics and those suffering from other neurological conditions may someday be able to walk and lead mostly normal lives.

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By thornburg on 5/22/2008 10:38:18 AM , Rating: 0
It could just be me, but I don't think I want something designed by a bunch of computer geeks being attached directly to my brain. I'll hold out for one from Johns Hopkins.

RE: Caltech?
By Cogman on 5/22/2008 10:46:41 AM , Rating: 2
And who would you rather have to design it, a marketing department?

I'm pretty sure there are quite a few doctors/neurologists mixed into the group that developed it, not just computer engineers.

RE: Caltech?
By othercents on 5/22/2008 10:52:44 AM , Rating: 2
Actually it was one computer engineer that dabbles in brain surgery in his spare time.


RE: Caltech?
By thornburg on 5/22/2008 10:58:53 AM , Rating: 2
It was supposed to be funny... and to point out that there a probably some people who are not getting quite as much mention as they deserve here.

Oh well.

RE: Caltech?
By amanojaku on 5/22/2008 11:01:59 AM , Rating: 2
*passes hand over head*

RE: Caltech?
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 5/22/2008 11:09:35 AM , Rating: 2
Plug me in.....
Once installation has been mastered of course... I'm assuming that in time they will be able to transfer data directly to your brain. So you can learn a book that would take a year(s) to master in just minutes (or a few hours). I want to play the piano today (20 minute down load).... Become a surgeon (60 minute down load).... Become a sex whore (2 day down load – too much data).

RE: Caltech?
By amanojaku on 5/22/2008 11:13:15 AM , Rating: 1
Become a sex whore (2 day down load – too much data).

If you're a man you're already a sex whore. Maybe not a good one, but you're a sex whore. We all are. :)

RE: Caltech?
By Polynikes on 5/22/2008 12:27:27 PM , Rating: 2
You just need to unlock that inner-sex whore.

RE: Caltech?
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 5/22/2008 12:38:38 PM , Rating: 2
yes, I know. I was trying to be non-gender specific. It's an equal opportunity down load option :)
There is also ravaging sex whore, demo dominatrix sex whore options. Just need to identify if you are male or female.... bad news if you down load files incorrectly.

RE: Caltech?
By othercents on 5/22/2008 12:48:06 PM , Rating: 3
bad news if you down load files incorrectly

That's called nature or what God intended, so it isn't bad.

RE: Caltech?
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 5/22/08, Rating: 0
RE: Caltech?
By Smartless on 5/22/2008 3:01:34 PM , Rating: 2
Haha but now you can do it like a machine.

RE: Caltech?
By Omega215D on 5/23/2008 12:29:57 AM , Rating: 4
Juijutsu? I'm going to learn juijutsu?

10 hours later:
I know kung-fu.

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