Brain, brains, brains: a roundup

I’ve decided to do a roundup of the various brain-related projects I’ve been coming across in the last several months. I was inspired by this article (Real-life Jedi: Pushing the limits of mind control) by Katia Moskvitch,

You don’t have to be a Jedi to make things move with your mind.

Granted, we may not be able to lift a spaceship out of a swamp like Yoda does in The Empire Strikes Back, but it is possible to steer a model car, drive a wheelchair and control a robotic exoskeleton with just your thoughts.

We are standing in a testing room at IBM’s Emerging Technologies lab in Winchester, England.

On my head is a strange headset that looks like a black plastic squid. Its 14 tendrils, each capped with a moistened electrode, are supposed to detect specific brain signals.

In front of us is a computer screen, displaying an image of a floating cube.

As I think about pushing it, the cube responds by drifting into the distance.

Moskvitch goes on to discuss a number of projects that translate thought into movement via various pieces of equipment before she mentions a project at Brown University (US) where researchers are implanting computer chips into brains,

Headsets and helmets offer cheap, easy-to-use ways of tapping into the mind. But there are other,

Imagine some kind of a wireless computer device in your head that you’ll use for mind control – what if people hacked into that”

At Brown Institute for Brain Science in the US, scientists are busy inserting chips right into the human brain.

The technology, dubbed BrainGate, sends mental commands directly to a PC.

Subjects still have to be physically “plugged” into a computer via cables coming out of their heads, in a setup reminiscent of the film The Matrix. However, the team is now working on miniaturising the chips and making them wireless.

The researchers are recruiting for human clinical trials, from the BrainGate Clinical Trials webpage,

Clinical Trials – Now Recruiting

The purpose of the first phase of the pilot clinical study of the BrainGate2 Neural Interface System is to obtain preliminary device safety information and to demonstrate the feasibility of people with tetraplegia using the System to control a computer cursor and other assistive devices with their thoughts. Another goal of the study is to determine the participants’ ability to operate communication software, such as e-mail, simply by imagining the movement of their own hand. The study is invasive and requires surgery.

Individuals with limited or no ability to use both hands due to cervical spinal cord injury, brainstem stroke, muscular dystrophy, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or other motor neuron diseases are being recruited into a clinical study at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Stanford University Medical Center. Clinical trial participants must live within a three-hour drive of Boston, MA or Palo Alto, CA. Clinical trial sites at other locations may be opened in the future. The study requires a commitment of 13 months.

They have been recruiting since at least November 2011, from the Nov. 14, 2011 news item by Tanya Lewis on MedicalXpress,

Stanford University researchers are enrolling participants in a pioneering study investigating the feasibility of people with paralysis using a technology that interfaces directly with the brain to control computer cursors, robotic arms and other assistive devices.

The pilot clinical trial, known as BrainGate2, is based on technology developed at Brown University and is led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brown and the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The researchers have now invited the Stanford team to establish the only trial site outside of New England.

Under development since 2002, BrainGate is a combination of hardware and software that directly senses electrical signals in the brain that control movement. The device — a baby-aspirin-sized array of electrodes — is implanted in the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain) and records its signals; computer algorithms then translate the signals into digital instructions that may allow people with paralysis to control external devices.

Confusingly, there seemto be two BrainGate organizations. One appears to be a research entity where a number of institutions collaborate and the other is some sort of jointly held company. From the About Us webpage of the BrainGate research entity,

In the late 1990s, the initial translation of fundamental neuroengineering research from “bench to bedside” – that is, to pilot clinical testing – would require a level of financial commitment ($10s of millions) available only from private sources. In 2002, a Brown University spin-off/startup medical device company, Cyberkinetics, Inc. (later, Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, Inc.) was formed to collect the regulatory permissions and financial resources required to launch pilot clinical trials of a first-generation neural interface system. The company’s efforts and substantial initial capital investment led to the translation of the preclinical research at Brown University to an initial human device, the BrainGate Neural Interface System [Caution: Investigational Device. Limited by Federal Law to Investigational Use]. The BrainGate system uses a brain-implantable sensor to detect neural signals that are then decoded to provide control signals for assistive technologies. In 2004, Cyberkinetics received from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the first of two Investigational Device Exemptions (IDEs) to perform this research. Hospitals in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Illinois were established as clinical sites for the pilot clinical trial run by Cyberkinetics. Four trial participants with tetraplegia (decreased ability to use the arms and legs) were enrolled in the study and further helped to develop the BrainGate device. Initial results from these trials have been published or presented, with additional publications in preparation.

While scientific progress towards the creation of this promising technology has been steady and encouraging, Cyberkinetics’ financial sponsorship of the BrainGate research – without which the research could not have been started – began to wane. In 2007, in response to business pressures and changes in the capital markets, Cyberkinetics turned its focus to other medical devices. Although Cyberkinetics’ own funds became unavailable for BrainGate research, the research continued through grants and subcontracts from federal sources. By early 2008 it became clear that Cyberkinetics would eventually need to withdraw completely from directing the pilot clinical trials of the BrainGate device. Also in 2008, Cyberkinetics spun off its device manufacturing to new ownership, BlackRock Microsystems, Inc., which now produces and is further developing research products as well as clinically-validated (510(k)-cleared) implantable neural recording devices.

Beginning in mid 2008, with the agreement of Cyberkinetics, a new, fully academically-based IDE application (for the “BrainGate2 Neural Interface System”) was developed to continue this important research. In May 2009, the FDA provided a new IDE for the BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial. [Caution: Investigational Device. Limited by Federal Law to Investigational Use.] The BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial is directed by faculty in the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School; the research is performed in close scientific collaboration with Brown University’s Department of Neuroscience, School of Engineering, and Brown Institute for Brain Sciences, and the Rehabilitation Research and Development Service of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs at the Providence VA Medical Center. Additionally, in late 2011, Stanford University joined the BrainGate Research Team as a clinical site and is currently enrolling participants in the clinical trial. This interdisciplinary research team includes scientific partners from the Functional Electrical Stimulation Center at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland VA Medical Center. As was true of the decades of fundamental, preclinical research that provided the basis for the recent clinical studies, funding for BrainGate research is now entirely from federal and philanthropic sources.

The BrainGate Research Team at Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford University, and Providence VA Medical Center comprises physicians, scientists, and engineers working together to advance understanding of human brain function and to develop neurotechnologies for people with neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss.

I think they’re saying there was a reverse takeover of Cyberkinetics, from the BrainGate company About webpage,

The BrainGate™ Co. is a privately-held firm focused on the advancement of the BrainGate™ Neural Interface System.  The Company owns the Intellectual property of the BrainGate™ system as well as new technology being developed by the BrainGate company.  In addition, the Company also owns  the intellectual property of Cyberkinetics which it purchased in April 2009.

Meanwhile, in Europe there are two projects BrainAble and the Human Brain Project. The BrainAble project is similar to BrainGate in that it is intended for people with injuries but they seem to be concentrating on a helmet or cap for thought transmission (as per Moskovitch’s experience at the beginning of this posting). From the Feb. 28, 2012 news item on Science Daily,

In the 2009 film Surrogates, humans live vicariously through robots while safely remaining in their own homes. That sci-fi future is still a long way off, but recent advances in technology, supported by EU funding, are bringing this technology a step closer to reality in order to give disabled people more autonomy and independence than ever before.

“Our aim is to give people with motor disabilities as much autonomy as technology currently allows and in turn greatly improve their quality of life,” says Felip Miralles at Barcelona Digital Technology Centre, a Spanish ICT research centre.

Mr. Miralles is coordinating the BrainAble* project (, a three-year initiative supported by EUR 2.3 million in funding from the European Commission to develop and integrate a range of different technologies, services and applications into a commercial system for people with motor disabilities.

Here’s more from the BrainAble home page,

In terms of HCI [human-computer interface], BrainAble improves both direct and indirect interaction between the user and his smart home. Direct control is upgraded by creating tools that allow controlling inner and outer environments using a “hybrid” Brain Computer Interface (BNCI) system able to take into account other sources of information such as measures of boredom, confusion, frustration by means of the so-called physiological and affective sensors.

Furthermore, interaction is enhanced by means of Ambient Intelligence (AmI) focused on creating a proactive and context-aware environments by adding intelligence to the user’s surroundings. AmI’s main purpose is to aid and facilitate the user’s living conditions by creating proactive environments to provide assistance.

Human-Computer Interfaces are complemented by an intelligent Virtual Reality-based user interface with avatars and scenarios that will help the disabled move around freely, and interact with any sort of devices. Even more the VR will provide self-expression assets using music, pictures and text, communicate online and offline with other people, play games to counteract cognitive decline, and get trained in new functionalities and tasks.

Perhaps this video helps,

Another European project, NeuroCare, which I discussed in my March 5, 2012 posting, is focused on creating neural implants to replace damaged and/or destroyed sensory cells in the eye or the ear.

The Human Brain Project is, despite its title, a neuromorphic engineering project (although the researchers do mention some medical applications on the project’s home page)  in common with the work being done at the University of Michigan/HRL Labs mentioned in my April 19, 2012 posting (A step closer to artificial synapses courtesy of memritors) about that project. From the April 11, 2012 news item about the Human Brain Project on Science Daily,

Researchers at the EPFL [Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] have discovered rules that relate the genes that a neuron switches on and off, to the shape of that neuron, its electrical properties and its location in the brain.

The discovery, using state-of-the-art informatics tools, increases the likelihood that it will be possible to predict much of the fundamental structure and function of the brain without having to measure every aspect of it. That in turn makes the Holy Grail of modelling the brain in silico — the goal of the proposed Human Brain Project — a more realistic, less Herculean, prospect. “It is the door that opens to a world of predictive biology,” says Henry Markram, the senior author on the study, which is published this week in PLoS ONE.

Here’s a bit more about the Human Brain Project (from the home page),

Today, simulating a single neuron requires the full power of a laptop computer. But the brain has billions of neurons and simulating all them simultaneously is a huge challenge. To get round this problem, the project will develop novel techniques of multi-level simulation in which only groups of neurons that are highly active are simulated in detail. But even in this way, simulating the complete human brain will require a computer a thousand times more powerful than the most powerful machine available today. This means that some of the key players in the Human Brain Project will be specialists in supercomputing. Their task: to work with industry to provide the project with the computing power it will need at each stage of its work.

The Human Brain Project will impact many different areas of society. Brain simulation will provide new insights into the basic causes of neurological diseases such as autism, depression, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. It will give us new ways of testing drugs and understanding the way they work. It will provide a test platform for new drugs that directly target the causes of disease and that have fewer side effects than current treatments. It will allow us to design prosthetic devices to help people with disabilities. The benefits are potentially huge. As world populations grow older, more than a third will be affected by some kind of brain disease. Brain simulation provides us with a powerful new strategy to tackle the problem.

The project also promises to become a source of new Information Technologies. Unlike the computers of today, the brain has the ability to repair itself, to take decisions, to learn, and to think creatively – all while consuming no more energy than an electric light bulb. The Human Brain Project will bring these capabilities to a new generation of neuromorphic computing devices, with circuitry directly derived from the circuitry of the brain. The new devices will help us to build a new generation of genuinely intelligent robots to help us at work and in our daily lives.

The Human Brain Project builds on the work of the Blue Brain Project. Led by Henry Markram of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the Blue Brain Project has already taken an essential first towards simulation of the complete brain. Over the last six years, the project has developed a prototype facility with the tools, know-how and supercomputing technology necessary to build brain models, potentially of any species at any stage in its development. As a proof of concept, the project has successfully built the first ever, detailed model of the neocortical column, one of the brain’s basic building blocks.

The Human Brain Project is a flagship project  in contention for the 1B Euro research prize that I’ve mentioned in the context of the GRAPHENE-CA flagship project (my Feb. 13, 2012 posting gives a better description of these flagship projects while mentioned both GRAPHENE-CA and another brain-computer interface project, PRESENCCIA).

Part of the reason for doing this roundup, is the opportunity to look at a number of these projects in one posting; the effect is more overwhelming than I expected.

For anyone who’s interested in Markram’s paper (open access),

Georges Khazen, Sean L. Hill, Felix Schürmann, Henry Markram. Combinatorial Expression Rules of Ion Channel Genes in Juvenile Rat (Rattus norvegicus) Neocortical Neurons. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (4): e34786 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034786

I do have earlier postings on brains and neuroprostheses, one of the more recent ones is this March 16, 2012 posting. Meanwhile, there are  new announcements from Northwestern University (US) and the US National Institutes of Health (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke). From the April 18, 2012 news item (originating from the National Institutes of Health) on Science Daily,

An artificial connection between the brain and muscles can restore complex hand movements in monkeys following paralysis, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

In a report in the journal Nature, researchers describe how they combined two pieces of technology to create a neuroprosthesis — a device that replaces lost or impaired nervous system function. One piece is a multi-electrode array implanted directly into the brain which serves as a brain-computer interface (BCI). The array allows researchers to detect the activity of about 100 brain cells and decipher the signals that generate arm and hand movements. The second piece is a functional electrical stimulation (FES) device that delivers electrical current to the paralyzed muscles, causing them to contract. The brain array activates the FES device directly, bypassing the spinal cord to allow intentional, brain-controlled muscle contractions and restore movement.

From the April 19, 2012 news item (originating from Northwestern University) on Science Daily,

A new Northwestern Medicine brain-machine technology delivers messages from the brain directly to the muscles — bypassing the spinal cord — to enable voluntary and complex movement of a paralyzed hand. The device could eventually be tested on, and perhaps aid, paralyzed patients.

The research was done in monkeys, whose electrical brain and muscle signals were recorded by implanted electrodes when they grasped a ball, lifted it and released it into a small tube. Those recordings allowed the researchers to develop an algorithm or “decoder” that enabled them to process the brain signals and predict the patterns of muscle activity when the monkeys wanted to move the ball.

These experiments were performed by Christian Ethier, a post-doctoral fellow, and Emily Oby, a graduate student in neuroscience, both at the Feinberg School of Medicine. The researchers gave the monkeys a local anesthetic to block nerve activity at the elbow, causing temporary, painless paralysis of the hand. With the help of the special devices in the brain and the arm — together called a neuroprosthesis — the monkeys’ brain signals were used to control tiny electric currents delivered in less than 40 milliseconds to their muscles, causing them to contract, and allowing the monkeys to pick up the ball and complete the task nearly as well as they did before.

“The monkey won’t use his hand perfectly, but there is a process of motor learning that we think is very similar to the process you go through when you learn to use a new computer mouse or a different tennis racquet. Things are different and you learn to adjust to them,” said Miller [Lee E. Miller], also a professor of physiology and of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Feinberg and a Sensory Motor Performance Program lab chief at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

The National Institutes of Health news item supplies a little history and background for this latest breakthrough while the Northwestern University news item offers more technical details more technical details.

You can find the researchers’ paper with this citation (assuming you can get past the paywall,

C. Ethier, E. R. Oby, M. J. Bauman, L. E. Miller. Restoration of grasp following paralysis through brain-controlled stimulation of muscles. Nature, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nature10987

I was surprised to find the Health Research Fund of Québec listed as one of the funders but perhaps Christian Ethier has some connection with the province.

One thought on “Brain, brains, brains: a roundup

  1. Pingback: Brain-controlled robotic arm means drinking coffee by yourself for the first time in 15 years « FrogHeart

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