Could help paralyzed individuals control prosthetic limbs and communicate

Touchpad technology has become a way of life for many who use laptops and other devices with this capability, but a new study led by a University of California researcher may replace the touchpad with "thoughtpad" technology

The study was led by Itzhak Fried, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This research found that humans can control complex visual images with their mind on a computer screen.

This type of research was based on the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which allow humans to manipulate computers with their thoughts. In this particular study, the participants were 12 people with epilepsy because they already had fine wires implanted in their brains. These wires are used to record seizure activity, but for the sake of this study, Itzhak and his team inserted the wires into the medial temporal lobe, which is a region of the brain responsible for memory and recognition of complex images. 

The 12 participants were asked to look at a computer screen with two images on it, and select one to concentrate on. Recordings from their brains were transferred to the computer, and as the participants concentrated on one image, the other faded away. This process only required four brain cells in the temporal lobe, and brain recordings were updated every one-tenth of one second. 

"This is a novel and elegant use of a brain-computer interface to explore how the brain directs attention and makes choices," said Debra Babcock, M.D., Ph.D., program director at NINDS. 

In total, the group discarded images using their thoughts about 900 times. Out of the 900 times, participants were able to successfully discard the image opposite of their concentration 70 percent of the time. Many were successful upon their first attempt when looking at pictures of familiar celebrity faces such as Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson

"The subjects were able to use their thoughts to override the images they saw on the computer screen," said Fried. 

Fried and his team see this type of progress in the development of BCIs as a step toward technology that can assist paralyzed humans communicate or control prosthetic limbs

Eventually, this sort of technology could be applied to devices like computers and cell phones as well.

This study was published in Nature.

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