Researchers expand clinical study of brain implant

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.


I'm excited to see that the BrainGate Neural Interface System is moving to phase-II clinical testing. BrainGate is:

A baby aspirin-size brain sensor containing 100 electrodes, each thinner than a human hair, that connects to the surface of the motor cortex (the part of the brain that enables voluntary movement), registers electrical signals from nearby neurons, and transmits them through gold wires to a set of computers, processors and monitors. The goal is for patients with brain stem stroke, ALS, and spinal cord injuries to eventually be able to control prosthetic limbs directly form their brains.

An earlier version of the BrainGate system helped a young tetraplegic named Matt Nagle control a mouse cursor and operate a very basic prosthetic hand.

Last fall, I met a 25-year-old locked-in patient named Erik Ramsey, who is participating in the only other FDA-approved clinical trial of a brain-computer interface. Ever since a car accident nine years ago, the only part of Erik's body that has been under his control has been his eyeballs, and even those he can only move up and down. The hope is that he might someday use his neural implant to control a digital voice:

When Erik thinks about puckering his mouth into an o or stretching his lips into an e, a unique pattern of neurons fires--even though his body doesn't respond. It's like flicking switches that connect to a burned-out bulb. The electrode implant picks up the noisy firing signals of about fifty different neurons, amplifies them, and transmits them across Erik's skull to two small receivers glued to shaved spots on the crown of his head. Those receivers then feed the signal into a computer, which uses a sophisticated algorithm to compare the pattern of neural firings to a library of patterns Kennedy recorded earlier. It takes about fifty milliseconds for the computer to figure out what Erik is trying to say and translate those thoughts into sound.
Like the BrainGate sensor, Erik's neural implant was inserted into the motor cortex (in his case, the specific region that controls the mouth, lips, and jaw). But Erik's implant only has a single electrode, whereas the BrainGate has 100, which means it should, theoretically, be able to differentiate signals from a far greater number of neurons.

Plug and Play: Researchers Expand Clinical Study of Neural Interface Brain Implant

The Unspeakable Odyssey of the Motionless Boy


  1. Recreating parts of the nervous system. Too cool!
    Hopefully, in a few years this will benefit many people.

  2. for science to offer the potential restoration of some degree of mobility to disabled folks is unfathomably awesome.. but on the other hand, i can’t help myself from thinking that this was one of the primary plot points of Robocop

  3. When I was young, it was my dream to work on this kind of thing.

    Turns out it takes a lot of school to get a degree in neurosurgery and CSE.

  4. Let’s all jump into the Wayback Machine with Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman – back in 2005 Wired Magazine had an article on implanting sensors in the brain and controlling a coursor/playing a “pong-like” video game using nothing but thoughts…

    Disclaimer: I don’t really have access to a Wayback Machine, but I did just read Wired issue 13.3 last week, and the articles were timely even today, for the perspective they provide – take a look at the table of contents for that issue:

    An article about the unbounded success of Satellite Radio and the anticipated success of Howard Stern moving to Sirius – now the two companies are one, just hoping to stay alive.

    An article about about HD Radio and how alternative formats (DJs playing what they like? Unheard of!) will save radio broadcasters – Of course, we all have HD radios by now, right?

    An article about Podcasting focusing on Addam Curry – Podcasting, the next big thing that still hasn’t taken off.

    The above mentioned article about brain sensors and using them to manipulate the world around you.

    An article about how Yahoo is the Internet Giant everyone forgets about – Does anyone still use Yahoo? I guess so, Microsoft wanted to buy them (repeatedly) recently.

    An article about this online thing called “Wikipedia” and how it was going to take over the world – The jury is still out on this one, but accuracy is a concern in many corners of the Internet.

    And finally, an article about the king of thrones, a low-flow toilet that can dispatch 24 golf balls to their ultimate destination – need I say more?

    Sometimes recent history can make for an interesting read…

  5. Hmm. According to the illustration, it only works with the “desklamp” style iMac G4 (produced 2002-2004). It’s a real blow to science that Apple abandoned this design for the “thick monitor” style of the iMac G5 and current Intel-based models.

  6. If Michael Crichton has taught us anything (other than how global warming is nothing more than an international conspiracy) it’s that a microchip implanted in your brain, even for legitimate medical reasons, will turn you into AN UNCONTROLLABLE SERIAL KILLER.

    Just say “no” to brain implants!

  7. No no no, the ultimate purpose of this will be to broadcast advertisements into our brains that match the keythoughts we think, with no way to turn them off. Google needs to get on this right away.

  8. I’ve been waiting for a way to link my brain directly to my 1GHz iMac since the screen must be shaken in the right way to turn on and the external video port has never worked and Apple builds their machines to be user-unservicable.

  9. I want one of those so i can draw on mondays. I always damage my hands during the weekends. (not fighting, just fell drunk last week, got a cigarrette burn the one before, broken glass earlier, etc…)

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