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.