A Telekinetic Future

I remember a book I read as a kid in which a girl has the power to move things with her mind. It seemed like a convenient talent to have—she could turn the lights on and off and retrieve objects without getting up.

Reality may be coming closer to matching the world of early '80s young adult sci-fi.

Scientists have been developing brain-machine interfaces for some time, allowing animal and human subjects to interact with computers and prosthetics through thought alone. John Donoghue of Brown University explained the promises and challenges of the field on Wednesday during the Nobel Conference 47: The Brain and Being Human held at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. [To watch the video of the presentation, click here.]

To detect a specific neural signal, researchers insert a microelectrode into the brain. To hear the signals of many neurons, Donoghue and his colleagues developed a 100-microelectrode array, allowing them to pick up the signals of dozens to hundreds of neurons.

They first used this technology in monkeys, implanting electrodes in the arm area of the animals’ motor cortices. In 2004, Donoghue and his colleagues implanted the first electrode array in a person. To date, they have implanted the electrodes in five tetraplegic people, who can now move cursors on computer screens and prosthetic arms through thought alone.

The technology doesn’t always work perfectly, and is somewhat clunky: There is a great deal of external hardware and personnel required for it to work. But the future looks bright, and one of Donoghue’s colleagues has developed a prototype for an internal model, in which all the pieces needed to make it work will be scaled down and implanted into the patient.

Other researchers are developing even more-advanced electrodes. As described in an article published in Nature this week (described here in lay terms), researchers led by Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University implanted electrodes in two monkeys’ motor and somatosensory cortices. The monkeys then moved a virtual arm using only their thoughts and—for the first time in a brain-machine interface—received tactile feedback in return.

The ability to receive tactile information is essential for the development of useful prosthetics. So while telekinetic teens may not soon become a reality, new ways for paralyzed people to move and communicate are on the horizon.

–Johanna Goldberg

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