Scientists at Caltech reported Thursday that they had developed an implantable chip that gave a tetraplegic man, Erik G. Sorto, the power to drink beer with a robot arm. This is just the beginning.
Researchers are working on all manner of silicon-based devices that go inside the body and manipulate the body’s signals to create motion. They believe these chips will not only be able to help those with paralysis one day -- but also usher in a new era of robot adjuncts controlled by someone’s thoughts that will be able to perform all manner of jobs from lifting dangerous objects to filing papers.
Here’s a look at some of the other promising research:
A group in Lausanne, Switzerland announced in January that they had helped mice with near-severed spines walk again with a ribbon of stretchable silicon that is placed under the nerve tissue. They used the gadget to second electrical signals through the animals as well as to deliver chemicals for nerve impulse transmission. In six weeks, the mice could not only walk but run and climb stairs again. Scientific American likened the technique to fixing a cuts in a telephone cable.
Signals that start in the brain are supposed to travel down nerves in the spinal cord to muscles, but breaks in the nerves interrupt them. Patching the breaks with new wires, jumping over the cut in the phone line, should restore communication.
In Ohio last year, doctors operated on a 22-year-old man to insert a chip into his brain that is connected to a port leading to a cable that is plugged into a computer programmed to decode messages from the brain. According to a report in The Washington Post, here’s how it would work:
The electrodes were designed to pulse and stimulate muscle fibers so that the muscles could pull on tendons in his hand.
If it all worked, a man who was paralyzed from the chest down would think about wiggling his finger, and in less than one-tenth of a second, his finger would move.
They would bypass his broken spinal cord and put a computer in its place.
The man, Ian Burkhart, was able to move his hand and fingers.
Much of the hope and promise of chips to aid those with spinal cord injuries comes from the 2011 case of Rob Summers, a college baseball star who was injured in a hit-and-run accident and paralyzed below the neck. According to Reuters:
The 2.5-ounce (72-gram) device began emitting electrical current at varying frequencies and intensities, stimulating dense bundles of neurons in the spinal cord. Three days later he stood on his own. In 2010 he took his first tentative steps.
The team wasn’t as optimistic about their next patients – unlike Summers, they didn’t have any sensation in their legs – and they were surprised when four men who were paralyzed from the chest down were able to voluntarily move their legs and feet after being implanted with the device. While the men were not able to walk, the experiment was hailed as a major success and offered new hope for the more than 6 million paralyzed Americans.
What's next? Writing in the Wall Street Journal, two scholars contend "brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago." Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University and Christof Koch, chief science of the Allen Brain Institute for Brain Science in Seattle wonder:
What would you give for a retinal chip that let you see in the dark or for a next-generation cochlear implant that let you hear any conversation in a noisy restaurant, no matter how loud? Or for a memory chip, wired directly into your brain's hippocampus, that gave you perfect recall of everything you read? Or for an implanted interface with the Internet that automatically translated a clearly articulated silent thought ("the French sun king") into an online search that digested the relevant Wikipedia page and projected a summary directly into your brain?