Mind-controlling your computer just became one step closer

Two people were able to perform tasks like opening Skype with a wireless implant

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Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

Imagine if we could control electronics with our minds. These brain-computer interfaces would help people with paralysis regain some independence. It could also help people who are conscious but unable to move or vocally communicate. However, it is difficult to build a working wireless interface. Too much hardware and too many wires make it easier for something to go wrong, and therefore harder to use at home.

Scientists at Brown University may have cracked the code with a device called BrainGate. Two people with paralysis participated in this pilot study, published last month. Surgeons implanted the participants with a device to measure electric signals in a small population of neurons. The device detected, recorded, and transmitted signals. Researchers tested how well participants could direct a cursor on a tablet computer. 

First, they tried the standard approach where the device used wires to transmit information from the brain to the computer. They completed a grid task, where they need to move a mouse cursor to a specific spot on the screen.

Each participant then attempted the same task without wires. Instead, researchers implemented a low-power radio transmitter. This transmitter sent signals to a receiver connected with the computer. When using the wireless transmitter, the participants' performances on the computer task remained the same. They used the device at home, showing that it works for everyday computer browsing. For example, they could use apps like Skype, thanks to the wireless brain-computer interface. 

This study is promising because it shows that wireless brain-computer interfaces work without forcing regular people to deal with a tangle of wires. It makes using these devices at home, outside of a lab setting, more feasible. Importantly, it helps people regain their independence through computer use and augments communication.