New remote brain-computer interface could be a game-changer for the paralyzed – The Hill

The story at a glance


  • In recent years, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have allowed study participants who have lost the use of their limbs to control a mouse cursor, keyboard, mobile device, wheelchair, and even an arm. robotics that provide sensory feedback to the patient, simply by using their own mind.

  • The BCI system involves implanting arrays of microelectrodes into a patient’s motor cortex, the area of ​​the brain that naturally controls movement.

  • BCI manufacturer Blackrock Neurotech and the University of Pittsburgh are working together to make studies more accessible to a larger population of candidates living with paralysis through the use of a compact, remote BCI system that can be used at home.

Researchers have made great strides in finally providing the more than 5 million paralyzed people in the United States with more mobility and independence with the development of an experimental device called the brain-computer interface (BCI).

Over the past few years, BCIs have enabled dozens of study participants who have lost the use of their limbs after strokes, accidents, or illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, to control a slider mouse, a keyboard, a mobile device, a wheelchair and even a robotic arm that provides sensory functions. feedback to the patient, simply by using his own mind. Technology could be a game-changer to help paralyzed people return to work and communicate faster and more effectively.

The BCI system involves implanting arrays of microelectrodes into a patient’s motor cortex, the area of ​​the brain that naturally controls movement. Patients are then asked to imagine moving their own arm or hand, and sensors in the motor cortex pick up these signals from the brain and transmit them as commands to an external device such as a computer cursor or a wheelchair.


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Although trials of the technology have been ongoing for years, participation has been limited due to logistics and geography, as volunteers crippled in studies must regularly travel to the labs.

But now, BCI manufacturer Blackrock Neurotech and the University of Pittsburgh work together making studies more accessible to a larger population of candidates living with paralysis through the use of a compact and remote BCI system that can be used at home. Researchers will be able to test a wider range of study participants and collect more data on safety and efficacy, a key step on the road to commercializing the technology.

“It’s essentially a new version of the entire BCI system designed for in-house use,” said Florian Solzbacher, co-founder and president of Blackrock Neurotech, a company that manufactures a suite of BCI technologies. in an interview.

“This was generally put in place so that all studies and trials could only be done in a hospital or clinical research setting. And that required participants to travel to the lab several times a week to work on it. It creates a much more realistic setting,” he said.

Solzbacher said the device looks a bit like an iPad with a small cellphone-sized box that’s attached to a type of medical corset. The device can easily be attached to a wheelchair and is light to transport. The software used in research trials has also been modified to work with little technical support. In the lab, experiments typically required rack-mounted data acquisition systems and about five computers to perform the research. He said BCI from home can allow users to write their own emails or text messages and work on a computer.

“Being able to make things work at home with a portable home system that participants can start, or perhaps a caretaker with no more knowledge than the layman can start, is a big step forward,” Solzbacher said.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehabilitation and Neural Engineering Laboratory (RNEL) demonstrated in 2020 that a study participant could use a wearable version of the BCI system at home to move a mouse cursor, play computer games and type sentences. Pitt was a leader in BCI research, successfully enabling a paralyzed man to use a robotic arm and hand that delivers tactile feedback directly to the man’s brain.

Pitt researchers say the new agreement with Blackrock Neurotech will lay the groundwork for scaling up key trials.

“One of the things we’re hearing from participants right now is that they really want a device that they can have at home that will actually be useful to them in their day-to-day life,” said Jennifer Collinger, researcher at RNEL from the University. ‘University of Pittsburgh.

“The trials that we’ve done at the University of Pittsburgh and all the other sites that are doing similar research right now, they’re basically temporary studies where almost all of the experiments are in the lab, or at least there’s lab staff overseeing the system, what they really want to see is something they can use independently all the time.

Late last year, Blackrock Neurotech earned Breakthrough Device Designation from the Food and Drug Administration for its “MoveAgain” BCI system, which is similar to the devices it plans to use in trials and hopes to be its first commercial BCI platform in 2023.

Posted on June 21, 2022