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BrainGate researchers demonstrate the use of a high-bandwidth wireless brain-computer interface to help people with spinal cord injuries overcome the barriers of communication. 

BrainGate researchers have taken an important step towards implementing an intracortical BCI system into patients suffering from spinal cord injuries that render them incapable of complete physical freedom. The device introduced by the company promises neural signals with high bandwidth that may improve lifestyle and contribute to elevated wellness. 

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI’s) are emerging ground-breaking assistive technologies that allow people with paralysis to use the computer or activate a prosthesis by simply thinking about the actions. Previously, the BCI technologies required cables to connect brains to computers to use external devices through brain-computer interfacing. But with this new BCI system demonstration by BrainGate, it seems that people with disabilities will be able to enjoy a wearable gadget to help them move and communicate. 

In the recent studies, BrainGate’s clinical trial patients who suffer from tetraplegia have successfully utilized high-bandwidth wireless BCI system with an external transmitter. The system is designed to carry neural signals in broadband fidelity without the hassle of physical tethering.

John Simeral, lead author of the study and a professor at Brown University explained the work stating, “We’ve demonstrated that this wireless system is functionally equivalent to the wired systems that have been the gold standard in BCI performance for years. The signals are recorded and transmitted with appropriately similar fidelity, which means we can use the same decoding algorithms we used with wired equipment. The only difference is that people no longer need to be physically tethered to our equipment, which opens up new possibilities in terms of how the system can be used.”

The design and functionality of the brain-computer interface 

The BCI system includes a small transmitter of about 2 inches that replaces the need for physical cables and weighs about 1.5 ounces. It sits upon the user’s head and connects to the brain via an electrode array that links to the Brain’s motor cortex.

A patient wearing the BrainGate device. 

Image via Brown University 

Two participants of the study (published in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering) suffered from complete paralysis and used the BrainGate system to point, click, and then type on a standard computer. The results of the study showed that the wireless system transmitted the brain signals with the same fidelity as we would experience with wired systems. 

How would this BCI contribute to patients’ wellness?  

While there have been many other clinical trials and studies aimed at studying the effectiveness of brain-computer interfacing and their ability for creating elevated wellness, the BrainGate system has achieved a unique milestone by wirelessly transmitting brain signals via an intracortical sensor. This is monumental because patients or users who are incapable of physical movement can now experience movement without being tethered to a net of cables. 

Additionally, other BCI devices used in the past did not deliver a full spectrum of neural signals over a wireless transmitter. The study participants, paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries, were able to use the BrainGate system in their homes as compared to conventional BCI systems  that can only be used in a lab setting. 

Unhampered by conventional wired systems, the participants were able to wear the device for longer allowing researchers to study brain signals and gather data. The system remained active with the participants even as they slept.

According to Leigh Hochberg, leader of this clinical trial and an engineering professor at Brown,  “We want to understand how neural signals evolve over time. With this system, we’re able to look at brain activity, at home, over long periods in a way that was nearly impossible before. This will help us design decoding algorithms that provide for the seamless, intuitive, reliable restoration of communication and mobility for people with paralysis.”

This research will help bioengineers figure out decoding algorithms that would eventually restore seamless and intuitive mobility and communication for patients who suffer from paralysis. 

Additionally, this milestone will help researchers in BCI technologies to create and implement fully implantable wireless interfaces for the brain. 

This BCI system was first established at Brown University’s lab governed by Arto Nurmikko who serves as the professor of Engineering at the University. It was called the Brown Wireless Device, which aimed at transmitting high-bandwidth signals without using immense power. In the recently done study, two devices were joined together to record neural signals with a 36-hour battery at 48 megabits per second drawn from 200 electrodes. 

Wearable brain-machine and brain-computer interfaces for elevated wellness 

With BrainGate, Next Mind, Bit Brain, and MeltingMMI, it seems that days of high-tech wearable brain-machine interfacing aren’t far. If successful, we’d be able to not only find solutions for dilapidating conditions but would be able to redefine human capacity.

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