Mind control Research: The science behind neural prosthetics

By Staff Writer  

We have come a long way in technology, and it can be challenging to discern fact from fiction.  

Sometimes, though, the engaging stories you encounter in social media are much more than clickbait. There are a lot of things that people believed to be science fiction that are now a genuine part of our lives. Consider how your grandparents would have reacted to the concept of a smartphone a few decades ago.  

Among one of the more impressive feats researchers have achieved in the last few years, we seem to be making significant headway in mind-controlled limbs! 

What’s the point of this? 

It’s so easy for many people to take the functionality of their limbs for granted. Simple tasks such as walking unassisted or opening a door are just everyday events for us.  

There are millions of individuals all over the world who do not have full use of their limbs. Whether it was due to congenital disabilities, disease, or accident, their inability to use all of their motor control can be extensively limiting.  

While there have been “solutions” for centuries, traditional prosthetics are not a perfect substitute for a functioning limb. Although researchers are a little ways away from being able to grow new limbs for transplants, there are several new devices under development that are aimed to improve prosthetic use.  

One of the more innovative ideas is to create a mindcontrolled prosthetic.  

What do you mean by mindcontrol? 

When researchers say ‘mindcontrolled, they don’t mean that they are giving patients superpowers to control their old prosthetics. Instead, they are researching the science behind how our brain works so that users can silently direct them on how to move.  

Nearly every bodily function— both deliberate and involuntary happens because of your brain. Your brain communicates with the rest of your body by sending signals through nerve cells around the body. There is a ton of work that goes into even the most basic movements! 

While these signals aren’t something you just see happening with the naked eye, some techniques allow you to record them. Devices can measure the activity of your neurons in the brain.  

Researchers proposed a design where patients would be able to animate their prosthetics using the signals their cerebral cortex send out via information captured in realtime from implanted electrode arrays (Schwartz, 2004).  

In other words, scientists would take a tiny electrode and permanently insert it into the patient’s brain. This electrode would record and translate brain activity. Certain types of activity would trigger movement in a prosthetic limb.  

While this does involve some training and rehabilitation, theoretically, patients would eventually be able to move their limbs with little effort at all. It would be kind of like learning to ride a bicycle. In the beginning, it involves a lot of thought, but after you keep doing it for a while, it becomes second nature. 

Further research has gone into the field where scientists continue to try to optimize and test the limits of this potential technology. The point of these advancements is to help those feel closer to the rest of society.  

Do you need to be tech-savvy? 

Bionic technology can sound a little overwhelming especially for those who are not very experienced with tech. The concept of trying out such cyborg technology can alsbe overwhelming or even off-putting to specific individuals.  

While the science behind how these work” is nothing to scoff at, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to learn how to actually use the equipment. Like many other medial projects before it, researchers utilized animal models during testing.  

In one study looking at cognitive control signals (Musallam, 2004), three monkeys trained to be able to use mental exertion to cause the cursor on a computer screen to move. Within a couple of weeks, the monkeys were able to “control” a cursor on a computer screen without displaying any outward behavior.  

These types of landmark studies demonstrate how promising these neural prosthetics can be.  

What more could we ask for? 

These prosthetics are an amazing improvement in comparison to the earlier models of prostheses that would be highly limited and controlled via cables or very basic microprocessors.  

These mind-controlled limbs are still not perfect, though. Although they are impressive, they are still subject to many limitations. Above all, the biggest problem is that these don’t restore sensation.  

Restoring sensation is a pretty difficult task to accomplish, and for many years, researchers were skeptical if it was possible at all. Breakthroughs in biometric technology have been redefining expectations, though. 

While a perfect prototype is still a dream for the future, artificial skin is a very real possibility for the future (Chortos, Lie, & Bao, 2016).  

Where can I find these new technologies? 

Unfortunately, these technologies are incredibly new, and many are still in testing phases. Unfortunately, these are not the kind of things you will be able to buy at the local department store. 

There are sometimes possibilities to participate in research. Keeping up-to-date with offers coming from local research institutes can help you keep track of what opportunities are available or where you can reach out.  

As technology advances, access to such tools will become easier and more inexpensive. Hopefully, one day in the near future, these sorts of devices will be available to everyone who wants them. 

Until then, it is essential to do what you can to support the scientific community and help facilitate a brighter, more advanced, future.   

References: 

Chortos, A., Liu, J., & Bao, Z. (2016). Pursuing prosthetic electronic skin. Nature materials, 15(9), 937-950. 

Musallam, S., Corneil, B. D., Greger, B., Scherberger, H., & Andersen, R. A. (2004). Cognitive control signals for neural prosthetics. Science, 305(5681), 258-262. 

Schwartz, A. B. (2004). Cortical neural prosthetics. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 27, 487-507.