According to The Asahi Shimbun, a device that reads brain waves to wirelessly control a robot arm or type text on a computer screen is to be clinically tested by Japanese researchers.
The research, a world first, will be conducted on patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which destroys motor neurons throughout the body. It will begin as early as fiscal 2017.
ALS patients are unable to breathe and speak as the disease progresses. ALS is incurable, and about 10,000 people in Japan suffer from it.
The wireless technology is an addition to brain-machine interface (BMI) development, which enables people to control instruments by brain signals.
In the planned clinical trial, the team, which includes researchers from Osaka University and the University of Electro-Communications, will remove part of the skull and place about 100 electrodes measuring only 1 millimetre in diameter on the surface of the exposed brain.
In addition, a small square of skull a few centimetres across will be cut out and a wireless device will be secured in the hole and left there to send electric signals to a computer.
The trial is scheduled to last one year, with a possible extension if patients wish to continue.
After the surgery, the patients will participate in BMI experiments to type on a computer, turn lights on and off, and use a robotic prosthetic arm.
In 2013, the team conducted a three-week experiment with an ALS patient after developing a technology that analyses the intended movement of a hand and elbow based on brain wave patterns that appear when one thinks to move body parts.
In the experiment, electrodes were directly placed on the surface of the brain, and the brain was connected to a computer with cables to see if the patient could control it by thinking.
This direct placement of electrodes enables a more accurate and fine reading than measuring brain waves on the scalp. The method has been used in pre-surgery check-ups on epilepsy patients.
Researchers are hoping application of the more direct method to the BMI technology will enable better readings of intended movements by ALS patients.
The downsides of the latest method are the risks stemming from undergoing a craniotomy and having an alien object in the body for the long term.
On the upside, it can reduce the risk of infection when compared with having cables extending through the skin.
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