Brain-Machine Interfaces Come One Step Closer

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The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to develop a working mind-computer interface, as we’ve written here before. But what uses would such technology have? One possible application would be better, faster, and more accurate vehicle control. Plugging in a brain into a plane, for example, would eliminate the time delay and error potential in using muscles to control a joystick.

“The military appear interested in the potential for jet fighters to control their planes with direct thought control, rather than using their arms. The reaction time you’d shave off would be milliseconds,” says Dr Tom Oxley, a neurologist at University of Melbourne (UoM) and Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Oxley and his colleague Dr Nick Opie, a biomedical engineer at the UoM’s Vascular Bionics Laboratory, have been working for the past four years with a diverse team of engineers and surgeons across 16 UoM departments to develop a brain-machine interface that could make all this possible.

To achieve this, they’ve developed a biocompatible implant called a strentrode. The tiny device sits inside a blood vessel adjacent to the brain and with an array of electrodes records brain activity from the motor cortex.

Until now, the only way to implant electronics in the brain was to open the skulls, which comes with its own set of not insignificant risks. The strentrode is small and flexible enough to pass through the blood vessel system, but stiff enough to be able to work properly once in place.

Oxley’s research has so far been funded by DARPA. To date, they’ve managed to implant strentrodes in several freely moving sheep and record brain signals for 190 days after implantation.

This is still not a final, fully-fledged solution, but with this development, Oxley and team bring us one step closer to working brain-machine interfaces.

“Direct brain-to-brain telecommunication is not unfeasible 30 years from now. These devices will enable us to achieve electronic capabilities that we can’t really imagine now,” he says.