The report involved three study participants with severe limb weakness — two from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, and one from a spinal cord injury. They each had one or two baby-aspirin-sized electrode arrays placed in their brains to record signals from the motor cortex, a region controlling muscle movement. These signals were transmitted to a computer via a cable and translated by algorithms into point-and-click commands guiding a cursor to characters on an onscreen keyboard.
Each participant, after minimal training, mastered the technique sufficiently to outperform the results of any previous test of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, for enhancing communication by people with similarly impaired movement. Notably, the study participants achieved these typing rates without the use of automatic word-completion assistance common in electronic keyboarding applications nowadays, which likely would have boosted their performance.
One participant, Dennis Degray of Menlo Park, California, was able to type 39 correct characters per minute, equivalent to about eight words per minute.
The investigational system used in the study, an intracortical brain-computer interface called the BrainGate Neural Interface System*, represents the newest generation of BCIs. Previous generations picked up signals first via electrical leads placed on the scalp, then by being surgically positioned at the brain’s surface beneath the skull.
An intracortical BCI uses a tiny silicon chip, just over one-sixth of an inch square, from which protrude 100 electrodes that penetrate the brain to about the thickness of a quarter and tap into the electrical activity of individual nerve cells in the motor cortex.
Shenoy said the day will come — closer to five than 10 years from now, he predicted —when a self-calibrating, fully implanted wireless system can be used without caregiver assistance, has no cosmetic impact and can be used around the clock.
“I don’t see any insurmountable challenges.” he said. “We know the steps we have to take to get there.”
Degray, who continues to participate actively in the research, knew how to type before his accident but was no expert at it. He described his newly revealed prowess in the language of a video game aficionado.
“This is like one of the coolest video games I’ve ever gotten to play with,” he said. “And I don’t even have to put a quarter in it.”
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have the potential to restore communication for people with tetraplegia and anarthria by translating neural activity into control signals for assistive communication devices. While previous pre-clinical and clinical studies have demonstrated promising proofs-of-concept. The performance of human clinical BCI systems is not yet high enough to support widespread adoption by people with physical limitations of speech. Here we report a high-performance intracortical BCI (iBCI) for communication, which was tested by three clinical trial participants with paralysis. The system leveraged advances in decoder design developed in prior pre-clinical and clinical studies. For all three participants, performance exceeded previous iBCIs as measured by typing rate (by a factor of 1.4–4.2) and information throughput (by a factor of 2.2–4.0). This high level of performance demonstrates the potential utility of iBCIs as powerful assistive communication devices for people with limited motor function.