Sensor technology could help paralyzed patients better control movement

Engineers at Brown University have developed an implantable brain sensor aimed to eventually help people with severe paralysis gain more control of their movement--a significant advancement for brain-machine interfaces.

Wireless and rechargeable, the brain sensor which has been showing success when tested in animals for more than a year, is described in the Journal of Neural Engineering. "The use of this new implantable neural interface technology can provide insight into how to advance human neuroprostheses beyond the present early clinical trials," the study's authors note.

Arto Nurmikko, a professor of engineering at Brown who oversaw the device's invention, presented his findings this week at the 2013 International Workshop on Clinical Brain-Machine Interface Systems in Houston, according to a university announcement.

"This has features that are somewhat akin to a cell phone, except the conversation that is being sent out is the brain talking wirelessly," Nurmikko said in the announcement, which also noted that neuroscientists can use such a device to observe, record, and analyze the signals emitted by neurons in particular parts of an animal model's brain.

The device has a pill-sized chip of electrodes, implanted on the cortex, which sends signals through electrical connections into the device's "laser-welded, hermetically sealed titanium can."

"What makes the achievement discussed [in this paper] unique is how it integrated many individual innovations into a complete system with potential for neuroscientific gain greater than the sum of its parts," lead study author David Borton, a postdoctoral candidate at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale Lausanne in Switzerland, said. "Most importantly, we show the first fully implanted neural interface microsystem operated wirelessly for more than 12 months in large animal models--a milestone for potential [human] clinical translation."

The device is not available for use in humans yet, nor has it been used in clinical trials of brain-computer interfaces. It was, however, designed with translational motivation.

In related news, Rebecca Wachs, a student innovator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., was just named a finalist for a $30,000 prize for her invention--a new implantable sensor with the ability to transmit data from the site of a knee replacement, spinal fusion or other orthopedic surgery, the school announced this week.

Wachs' invention, according to the announcement, "could give surgeons the opportunity to make surgical decisions and post-operative diagnoses for individual patients based on objective, personalized, and real-time data."

Sensor technology has grown increasingly innovative over the past year, with disposable chips developed to monitor vital signs, and a bevy of wearable devices displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January.

To learn more:
- read the study in the Journal of Neural Engineering
- read the announcement from Brown University
- read the announcement from Rensselaer

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