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Brain Chips

Connecting the mind and machines

CNN's Michael Bay

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Soon scientific advances may allow us to control machinery with our thoughts
start quoteYou are going to have individuals who have super-powered calculation and communication abilities and will be far superior than the rest of us end quote
-- Philip Kennedy, CEO of Neural Signals

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(Atlanta) -- We react naturally to the signals our brains send out to our bodies. Science has long been able to listen into the signals the brain sends, but is just now learning to turn those signals into meaningful action. The result is restoring movement and speech to the disabled.

One such effort is Cyberkinetic's BrainGate Neural Interface System, now undergoing clinical trials. The tiny chip was developed by Brown University's John Donoghue, who serves as Cyberkinetic's Chief Scientific Officer.

"Our research was to investigate the electrical signals in the brain," says Donoghue, "and how they are transformed as these thoughts get changed over into actual control of your arm or your hand."

"One of the big breakthroughs in neuroscience is that we can tap into signals [from the brain], and we get many complex electrical impulses from those neurons," says Brown. "We can read out those signals, and by some not-to-complex mathematical techniques, we can put them back together in a way that we can interpret what the brain is trying to do."

"In this trial," he explains, "we've implanted a tiny chip in the brain and that tiny chip picks up signals about moving the arm." The signal is then converted into simple commands that can be used to control computers, turn lights on and off, control a television set. Or, as Donoghue explains, "control robotic devices like an artificial hand... or a robotic arm."

In Atlanta, Philip Kennedy is working along similar lines. The CEO and chief scientist of Neural Signals, Kennedy is working with Eric Ramsey, a young man who has been "locked-in" since he was in a car accident in 1999. "A locked-in patient is somebody who is basically alert, intelligent, but they cannot communicate," says Kennedy. "His thinking brain is intact, but he cannot move, he can hardly move his eyes, he cannot speak, he gets spasms from time to time."

"We ask him questions," says Eric's father Eddie, "and he communicates through eye movement."

But, Kennedy is working to change that. He's surgically implanted a sensor that monitors the neural signals generated in the speech center of Eric's brain. Kennedy is listening for the patterns generated when Eric tries to imitate phonemes, the basic sounds that make up language.

"We are presently detecting the pattern of firing in those signals and the pattern is associated with particular phonemes or word sounds that he is trying to produce," explains Kennedy. "We have done that mapping and now we are trying to detect them and send them back to him, so that he can actually produce the phonemes or sounds of words." The result will be a computer synthesizing Eric's attempts to speak, and speaking for him.

Eric's father has been impressed by the progress so far, and has great hope for his son's future. " I think that he will be able to at least regain some type of communication with other people that will be easy to understand," says Eddie, "and keep him from being shelled-in within himself." Eddie hopes his son will someday be able to attend college and become an artist. "His ambition before this happened was to become a Disney artist," Eddie says, "and he was very good at drawing. We are hoping that maybe electronically he can go back to that."

Kennedy believes the future could bring a revolution as brain-computer interfaces are constructed using nanotechnology and getting information in becomes as easy as getting information out. "I imagine people will want to increase their memory," he says. "We can also expand our ability to calculate and maybe even have a direct communication, without a transmitter or cellphone."

The concept is familiar to readers of some near-future science fiction, especially the cyberpunk genre: A chip implanted in your head that allows you to store and recall information, of have a direct connection to machines, including computers and the Internet.

Kennedy says the implications of such technology are very serious. "You are going to have individuals who have super-power of memories, calculation abilities and communication abilities and be far superior than the rest of us." The power such devices could give people could lead to abuse. And governments might choose to restrict access to the technology. "Once you can do this brain machine interfacing, then everybody is going to want it," Kennedy says, "Either everybody gets it, or nobody gets it or a select few get it."

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