Neurophilosophy

Brain power



Yesterday’s episode of the CBS programme 60 Minutes featured this report called Brain Power, about the use of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) by a number of patients who have been paralysed by various conditions. (The 12-minute report is preceded by a commercial.)

Generally speaking, BCIs record the electrical activity of the pre-motor or motor cortex, which are involved respectively in planning and executing movements. The activity is decoded by a computer which then translates it into commands that can be used to control an external device.

The report begins with the case of Scott Mackler, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Mackler recently started communicating using a non-invasive device developed by Jonathan Wolpaw of the Wadsworth Center in New York, which consists of an electrode cap that records the brain’s electrical activity. Presenter Scott Pelley interviews both Mackler and Wolpaw, then tries using the device himself.

In the second half of the report, Pelley discusses invasive BCIs which are implanted directly into the brain. He talks to Andrew Schwartz of the University of the University of Pittsburgh, who has recently developed a device with which monkeys can control a robotic arm, and then to John Donahue of Brown University, who developed the BrainGate BCI. This was the first invasive device to be tested in humans – 2 years ago, quadriplegic Matthew Nagel used it to control the movements of a prosthetic arm. 

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin
    November 7, 2008

    Score one more against Cartesian substance dualism. As if the horse hasn’t been beaten so much that the atoms that composed it are evenly distributed and equidistant in the universe by now!

  2. #2 McDawg
    November 8, 2008

    That was quite a remarkable CBS programme.

    The programme and CBS article were recently flagged up on the forum of PatientsLikeMe-ALS by an ALS patient who has been participating in this research for more than a year.

    I’ve placed a link to this post on that thread of the forum.

    Having watched and read a handful of articles about BCI’s, this was the most encouraging I’ve seen so far.

    Thanks for blogging this Mo :)