The Future is Now: BCI
Guardian Unlimited | Life | Meet the mind readers
: "There's a hand lying on the blanket on Matt Nagle's desk and he's staring at it intently, thinking 'Close, close,' as the scientists gathered around him look on. To their delight, the hand twitches and its outstretched fingers close around the open palm, clenching to a fist.
In that moment, Nagle made history. Paralysed from the neck down after a vicious knife attack four years ago, he is the first person to have controlled an artificial limb using a device chronically implanted into his brain.
The experiment took place a few months ago as part of a broader trial into what are known in the business as brain-computer interfaces. Although it is early days, aficionados of the technology see a world where brain implants return ability to those with disability, allowing them to control all manner of devices by thought alone. There are huge hurdles ahead. No one knows how much information we can usefully decipher from the electrical fizz of the brain's 100bn neurons. More importantly, scientists are still in the dark as to what effect, if any, long term implants will have on the human brain, or how its circuitry will cope with the new tasks demanded of it."
Nicolelis says his goal is to use brain implants to allow the disabled to walk again. He has already started designing a wearable robotic "exoskeleton" that could help power paralysed legs - think Wallace and Gromit's The Wrong Trousers, only with better control. Nicolelis is also developing something called "shared control" in which a robotic limb is triggered by a basic command from the brain, but refines and carries out the movement itself, using pre-programmed intelligence. "The hurdles ahead, after finding even better electrodes, are developing prosthetics that are more amenable to brain control," he says.