Swiss Nano-Tera program researchers have developed an implantable lab-on-a-chip which can test blood and convey the results to your doctor (once they take the device out of the laboratory) according to a Mar. 19, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,
Humans are veritable chemical factories – we manufacture thousands of substances and transport them, via our blood, throughout our bodies. Some of these substances can be used as indicators of our health status. A team of EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) scientists has developed a tiny device that can analyze the concentration of these substances in the blood. Implanted just beneath the skin, it can detect up to five proteins and organic acids simultaneously, and then transmit the results directly to a doctor’s computer. This method will allow a much more personalized level of care than traditional blood tests can provide. Health care providers will be better able to monitor patients, particularly those with chronic illness or those undergoing chemotherapy. The prototype, still in the experimental stages, has demonstrated that it can reliably detect several commonly traced substances. The research results will be published and presented March 20, 2013 in Europe’s largest electronics conference, DATE 13.
Design, Automation, and Test in Europe (DATE) 2013 can be found here. For those of us who won’t be at the DATE 13 conference, this EPFL video highlights some of the research being presented there,
The device was developed by a team led by EPFL scientists Giovanni de Micheli and Sandro Carrara. The implant, a real gem of concentrated technology, is only a few cubic millimeters in volume but includes five sensors, a radio transmitter and a power delivery system. Outside the body, a battery patch provides 1/10 watt of power, through the patient’s skin – thus there’s no need to operate every time the battery needs changing.
Information is routed through a series of stages, from the patient’s body to the doctor’s computer screen. The implant emits radio waves over a safe frequency. The patch collects the data and transmits them via Bluetooth to a mobile phone, which then sends them to the doctor over the cellular network.
Great care was taken in developing the sensors. To capture the targeted substance in the body – such as lactate, glucose, or ATP – each sensor’s surface is covered with an enzyme. “Potentially, we could detect just about anything,” explains De Micheli. “But the enzymes have a limited lifespan, and we have to design them to last as long as possible.” The enzymes currently being tested are good for about a month and a half; that’s already long enough for many applications. “In addition, it’s very easy to remove and replace the implant, since it’s so small.”
The electronics were a considerable challenge as well. “It was not easy to get a system like this to work on just a tenth of a watt,” de Micheli explains. The researchers also struggled to design the minuscule electrical coil that receives the power from the patch.
The implant could be particularly useful in chemotherapy applications. Currently, oncologists use occasional blood tests to evaluate their patients’ tolerance to a particular treatment dosage. In these conditions, it is very difficult to administer the optimal dose. …
In patients with chronic illness, the implants could send alerts even before symptoms emerge, and anticipate the need for medication. “In a general sense, our system has enormous potential in cases where the evolution of a pathology needs to be monitored or the tolerance to a treatment tested.”
The prototype has already been tested in the laboratory for five different substances, and proved as reliable as traditional analysis methods. The project brought together eletronics experts, computer scientists, doctors and biologists from EPFL, the Istituto di Ricerca di Bellinzona, EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) and ETHZ (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich). It is part of the Swiss Nano-Tera program, whose goal is to encourage interdisciplinary research in the environmental and medical fields. Researchers hope the system will be commercially available within 4 years. [emphases mine]
“Making this technology commercially available within four years” seems rather optimistic since the news release mentions laboratory testing only. Optimistic that is, unless the researchers are already running human clinical trials not mentioned in the news release.
One last thought, objects implanted into the body tend to break down over time as per hip and knee replacements. I wonder if this lab-on-a-chip could be subject to some of the same drawbacks.
Since we use computer chips built from silicon in any number devices including robots, the announcement of a robot controlled by the first computer chip built entirely of a material other silicon bears notice. From the Mar. 15, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed),
A group of Stanford researchers recently debuted the first robot controlled by a computer chip built entirely from carbon nanotube transistors, which many scientists predict may eventually replace silicon.
While scientists have produced simple demonstrations of working carbon nanotube circuit components in the past, the Stanford team, led by Professor of Electrical Engineering Philip Wong and Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Subhasish Mitra Ph.D. ’00, was able to demonstrate an actual subsystem composed entirely of the material.
The news item was originated by a Mar. 7, 2013 article by Nikhita Obeegadoo for the Stanford Daily, where she noted,
The project was presented in the form of a robot named Sacha at the 2013 International Solid-State Circuits Conference (“Sacha, the Stanford Carbon Nanotube Controlled Handshaking Robot”), which was held in San Francisco. According to Mitra, the robot was created to demonstrate the development of a system that can function despite the errors caused by inherently imperfect nanotubes, which have posed issues for research teams working with carbon nanotubes in the past.
“Through several generations of technology, devices keep getting smaller and denser, and silicon will no longer be the best material for the purpose in about ten years,” Guha [Supratik Guha, director of physical sciences at IBM’s Yorktown Heights Research Center] said. “For needs that are close to atomic dimensions, carbon nanotubes have just the right shape and the right electrical behavior.”
… The robot contained a carbon nanotube capacitor, a device found in many touchscreens, connected to another nanotube circuit, which turned the analog signal from the capacitor into a digital signal, which was transmitted to the microprocessor that contained CNT transistors. The microporcessor then sent a signal to a motor on the hand of the robot, which shook the person’s hand that touched the capacitors embedded in it.
This is not the first example of carbon nanotube circuitry, but it is the first example of CNTs being produced at mass for a microprocessor and circuit that were integrated. This advancement showed that it is possible to produce mass amounts of CNTs and have them integrate succesfully into a complex system. Although the size of the CNTs in this system are far from the optimal size of 10nm, it is a good starting point, and the nanotubes still can be much further refined.
Carbon nanotubes, although perfect in theory for microprocessors, present new challenges for engineers. The greatest challenge is the actual integration of CNTs into circuitry. Nanotubes often force themselves into a tangled position, which can cause circuits to fail without warning.
Juma gives a good explanation for why there is so much interest in carbon nanotubes in the field of electronics and he provides links to more information about it all. (There’s a video about carbon nanotubes and their various shapes and structures in my Mar. 15, 2013 posting about them.)
Sacha will be seen (or perhaps the work will simply be presented by Max Shulaker?) next in Switzerland at a Mar. 25, 2013 workshop (FED ’13; Functionality-Enhanced Devices Workshop) at the EPFl (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
Its official title is the Montréal Neurological Institute and Hospital (Montréal Neuro) which is and has been, for several decades, an international centre for cutting edge neurological research. From the Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,
The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro, is a unique academic medical centre dedicated to neuroscience. Founded in 1934 by the renowned Dr. Wilder Penfield, The Neuro is recognized internationally for integrating research, compassionate patient care and advanced training, all key to advances in science and medicine. The Neuro is a research and teaching institute of McGill University and forms the basis for the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre.
Neuro researchers are world leaders in cellular and molecular neuroscience, brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience and the study and treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and neuromuscular disorders. For more information, visit theneuro.com.
Nonetheless, it was a little surprising to see that ‘The Neuro’ is part one of the biggest research projects in history since it’s the European Union, which is bankrolling the project (see my posting about the Jan. 28, 2013 announcement of the winning FET Flagship Initatives). Here’s more information about the project, its lead researchers, and Canada’s role, from the news release,
The goal of the Human Brain Project is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations. The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies. On January 28 , the European Commission supported this vision, announcing that it has selected the HBP as one of two projects to be funded through the new FET [Future and Emerging Technologies] Flagship Program.
Federating more than 80 European and international research institutions, the Human Brain Project is planned to last ten years (2013-2023). The cost is estimated at 1.19 billion euros. The project will also associate some important North American and Japanese partners. It will be coordinated at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, by neuroscientist Henry Markram with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University, Germany, and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL).
Canada’s role in this international project is through Dr. Alan Evans of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University. His group has developed a high-performance computational platform for neuroscience (CBRAIN) and multi-site databasing technologies that will be used to assemble brain imaging data across the HBP. He is also collaborating with European scientists on the creation of ultra high-resolution 3D brain maps. «This ambitious project will integrate data across all scales, from molecules to whole-brain organization. It will have profound implications for our understanding of brain development in children and normal brain function, as well as for combatting brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease,» said Dr. Evans. “The MNI’s pioneering work on brain imaging technology has led to significant advances in our understanding of the brain and neurological disorders,” says Dr. Guy Rouleau, Director of the MNI. “I am proud that our expertise is a key contributor to this international program focused on improving quality of life worldwide.”
“The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is delighted to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of Dr. Evans and his team. Their work on the CBRAIN infrastructure and this leading-edge HBP will allow the integration of Canadian neuroscientists into an eventual global brain project,” said Dr. Anthony Phillips, Scientific Director for the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction. “Congratulations to the Canadian and European researchers who will be working collaboratively towards the same goal which is to provide insights into neuroscience that will ultimately improve people’s health.”
“From mapping the sensory and motor cortices of the brain to pioneering work on the mechanisms of memory, McGill University has long been synonymous with world-class neuroscience research,” says Dr. Rose Goldstein, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). “The research of Dr. Evans and his team marks an exciting new chapter in our collective pursuit to unlock the potential of the human brain and the entire nervous system – a critical step that would not be possible without the generous support of the European Commission and the FET Flagship Program.”
Canada is not the only non-European Union country making an announcement about its role in this extraordinary project. There’s a Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert touting Israel’s role,
The European Commission has chosen the Human Brain Project, in which the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is participating, as one of two Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship topics. The enterprise will receive funding of 1.19 billion euros over the next decade.
The project will bring together top scientists from around the world who will work on one of the great challenges of modern science: understanding the human brain. Participating from Israel will a team of eight scientists, led by Prof. Idan Segev of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) at the Hebrew University, Prof. Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Dr. Mira Marcus-Kalish of Tel Aviv University.
More than 80 universities and research institutions in Europe and the world will be involved in the ten-year Human Brain Project, which will commence later this year and operate until the year 2023. The project will be centered at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, headed by Prof. Henry Markram, a former Israeli who was recruited ten years ago to the EPFL.
The participation of the Israeli scientists testifies to the leading role that Israeli brain research occupies in the world, said Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Israel has put brain research at the heart of its efforts for the coming decade, and our country is already spearheading the global effort towards the betterment of our understanding of mankind. I am confident that the forthcoming discoveries will benefit a wide range of domains, from health to industry, as well as our society as a whole,” Peres said.
“The human brain is the most complex and amazing structure in the universe, yet we are very far from understanding it. In a way, we are strangers to ourselves. Unraveling the mysteries of the brain will help us understand our functioning, our choices, and ultimately ourselves. I congratulate the European Commission for its vision in selecting the Human Brain Project as a Flagship Mission for the forthcoming decade,” said Peres.
What’s amusing is that as various officials and interested parties (such as myself) wax lyrical about these projects, most of the rest of the world is serenely oblivious to it all.
The European Commission has announced the two winners of its FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) Flagships Initiative in a Jan. 28, 2013 news release,
The winning Graphene and Human Brain initiatives are set to receive one billion euros each, to deliver 10 years of world-beating science at the crossroads of science and technology. Each initiative involves researchers from at least 15 EU Member States and nearly 200 research institutes.
“Graphene” will investigate and exploit the unique properties of a revolutionary carbon-based material. Graphene is an extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties: it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity much better than copper, it is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties. The use of graphene was made possible by European scientists in 2004, and the substance is set to become the wonder material of the 21st century, as plastics were to the 20th century, including by replacing silicon in ICT products.
The “Human Brain Project” will create the world’s largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain, for studying how the human brain works and ultimately to develop personalised treatment of neurological and related diseases. This research lays the scientific and technical foundations for medical progress that has the potential to will dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Europeans.
The European Commission will support “Graphene” and the “Human Brain Project” as FET “flagships” over 10 years through its research and innovation funding programmes. Sustained funding for the full duration of the project will come from the EU’s research framework programmes, principally from the Horizon 2020 programme (2014-2020) which is currently negotiated in the European Parliament and Council.
European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes said: “Europe’s position as a knowledge superpower depends on thinking the unthinkable and exploiting the best ideas. This multi-billion competition rewards home-grown scientific breakthroughs and shows that when we are ambitious we can develop the best research in Europe. To keep Europe competitive, to keep Europe as the home of scientific excellence, EU governments must agree an ambitious budget for the Horizon 2020 programme in the coming weeks.”
“Graphene” is led by Prof. Jari Kinaret, from Sweden’s Chalmers University. The Flagship involves over 100 research groups, with 136 principal investigators, including four Nobel laureates. “The Human Brain Project” involves scientists from 87 institutions and is led by Prof. Henry Markram of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
As noted in my Jan. 24, 2013 posting about the new Cambridge Graphene Centre in the UK, while the Graphene flagship lead is from Sweden, the UK has more educational institutions than any other country party to the flagship consortium.
Here are some funding details from the Jan. 28, 2013 news release,
Horizon 2020 is the new EU programme for research and innovation, presented by the Commission as part of its EU budget proposal for 2014 to 2020. In order to give a boost to research and innovation as a driver of growth and jobs, the Commission has proposed an ambitious budget of €80 billion over seven years, including the FET flagship programme itself.
The winners will receive up to €54 million from the European Commission’s ICT 2013 Work Programme. Further funding will come from subsequent EU research framework programmes, private partners including universities, Member States and industry.
1 billion Euros sounds like a lot of money but it’s being paid out over 10 years (100 million per year) and through many institutional layers at the European Commission and at the educational institutions themselves. One wonders how much of the money will go to research rather than administration.
2000th posting: My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog and and to those who’ve taken the time to comment on the blog, on Twitter, or directly to me. Your interest has kept this blog going far longer than I believed it would.
Here’s something about how hydrogen atoms cause metals to become embrittled, from a Nov. 19, 2012 McGill University (Montréal, Québec) news release,
Hydrogen, the lightest element, can easily dissolve and migrate within metals to make these otherwise ductile materials brittle and substantially more prone to failures.
Since the phenomenon was discovered in 1875, hydrogen embrittlement has been a persistent problem for the design of structural materials in various industries, from battleships to aircraft and nuclear reactors. Despite decades of research, experts have yet to fully understand the physics underlying the problem or to develop a rigorous model for predicting when, where and how hydrogen embrittlement will occur. As a result, industrial designers must still resort to a trial- and-error approach.
Now, Jun Song, an Assistant Professor in Materials Engineering at McGill University, and Prof. William Curtin, Director of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, have shown that the answer to hydrogen embrittlement may be rooted in how hydrogen modifies material behaviours at the nanoscale. In their study, published in Nature Materials, Song and Curtin present a new model that can accurately predict the occurrence of hydrogen embrittlement.
Under normal conditions, metals can undergo substantial plastic deformation when subjected to forces. This plasticity stems from the ability of nano- and micro-sized cracks to generate “dislocations” within the metal – movements of atoms that serve to relieve stress in the material.
“Dislocations can be viewed as vehicles to carry plastic deformation, while the nano- and micro-sized cracks can be viewed as hubs to dispatch those vehicles,” Song explains. “The desirable properties of metals, such as ductility and toughness, rely on the hubs functioning well. Unfortunately those hubs also attract hydrogen atoms. The way hydrogen atoms embrittle metals is by causing a kind of traffic jam: they crowd around the hub and block all possible routes for vehicle dispatch. This eventually leads to the material breaking down.”
State-of-the-art computer simulations were performed by Song to reveal explicitly how hydrogen atoms move within metals and how they interact with metal atoms. This simulation was followed by rigorous kinetic analysis, to link the nanoscale details with macroscopic experimental conditions.
This model has been applied to predict embrittlement thresholds in a variety of ferritic iron-based steels and produced excellent agreements with experiments. The findings provide a framework for interpreting experiments and designing next-generation embrittlement-resistant structural materials.
Scientists Francesco Stellacci at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Bartosz Grzybowski at Northwestern University have devised an easy and economical way to test for mercury and other heavy metals in fish. From the Sept. 9, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,
Mercury, when dumped in lakes and rivers, accumulates in fish, and often ends up on our plates. A Swiss-American team of researchers led by Francesco Stellacci at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Bartosz Grzybowski at Northwestern University has devised a simple, inexpensive system based on nanoparticles, a kind of nano-velcro, to detect and trap this toxic pollutant as well as others. The particles are covered with tiny hairs that can grab onto toxic heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. This technology makes it possible to easily and inexpensively test for these substances in water and, more importantly, in the fish that we eat. Their new method can measure methyl mercury, the most common form of mercury pollution, at unprecedentedly small attomolar concentrations.
The technology developed by the Swiss-American team is simple to use. A strip of glass covered with a film of “hairy”nanoparticles is dipped into the water. When an ion – a positively charged particle, such as a methyl mercury or cadmium ion – gets in between two hairs, the hairs close up, trapping the pollutant.
A voltage-measuring device reveals the result; the more ions there are trapped in the nano-velcro, the more electricity it will conduct. So to calculate the number of trapped particles, all one needs to do is measure the voltage across the nanostructure.
By varying the length of the nano-hairs, the scientists can target a particular kind of pollutant. “The procedure is empirical,” explains Stellacci. Methyl mercury, fortunately, has properties that make it extremely easy to trap without accidentally trapping other substances at the same time; thus the results are very reliable.
The interesting aspect of this approach is that the ‘reading’ glass strip could costs less than 10 dollars, while the measurement device will cost only a few hundreds of dollars. The analysis can be done in the field, so the results are immediately available. “With a conventional method, you have to send samples to the laboratory, and the analysis equipment costs several million dollars,” notes Stellacci.
They have tested the system in the field,
The researchers tested the system in Lake Michigan, near Chicago. Despite the high level of industry in the region, mercury levels were extremely low. “The goal was to compare our measurements to FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] measurements done using conventional methods,” explains Stellacci. “Our results fell within an acceptable range.”
A mosquito fish from the Everglades in Florida was also tested. This species is not very high on the food chain and thus does not accumulate high levels of mercury in its tissues. “We measured tissue that had been dissolved in acid. The goal was to see if we could detect even minuscule quantities.” says Bartosz Grzybowski, Burgess Professor of Chemistry and Director of Non-Equilibrium Energy Research Center at Northwestern University. The United States Geological Survey reported near-identical results after analyzing the same sample.
“I think it is quite incredible,” Grzybowski adds, “how the complex principles of quantum tunneling underlying our device translate into such an accurate and practically useful device. It is also notable that our system – through some relatively simple chemical modifications – can be readily adapted to detect other toxic species” Researchers have already demonstrated the detection of cadmium with a very high femtomolar sensitivity.
“With this technology, it will be possible to conduct tests on a much larger scale in the field, or even in fish before they are put on the market,” says lead author Eun Seon Cho. This is a necessary public health measure, given the toxic nature of methyl mercury and the extremely complex manner in which it spreads in the environment and accumulates in living tissues.
Northwestern University provided an illustration of the nano-velcro trapping an ion of heavy metal,
Nano-velcro (Courtesy Northwestern University & EPFL; downloaded from http://actu.epfl.ch/news/nano-velcro-clasps-heavy-metal-molecules-in-its-gr/)
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 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.
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 (http://www.brainable.org/), 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.
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) systemable 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.
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.
Today’s blogging seems to have acquired a transportation theme. Here’s another item about a car, this one can read minds. From the Sept. 28, 2011 news item on physorg.com,
In the future, thinking about turning left may no longer be just a thought. Japanese auto giant Nissan and a Swiss university are developing cars that scan the driver’s thoughts and prepares the vehicle for the next move.
As the driver thinks about turning left ahead, for example, so the car will prepare itself for the manoeuvre, selecting the correct speed and road positioning, before completing the turn. The aim? To ensure that our roads are as safe as possible and that the freedom that comes with personal mobility remains at the heart of society.
Nissan is undertaking this pioneering work in collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland (EPFL). Far reaching research on Brain Machine Interface (BMI) systems by scientists at EPFL already allows disabled users to manoeuvre their wheelchairs by thought transference alone. The next stage is to adapt the BMI processes to the car – and driver – of the future.
Professor José del R. Millán, leading the project, said: “The idea is to blend driver and vehicle intelligence together in such a way that eliminates conflicts between them, leading to a safer motoring environment.”
Using brain activity measurement, eye movement patterns and by scanning the environment around the car in conjunction with the car’s own sensors, it should be possible to predict what the driver plans to do – be it a turn, an overtake, a lane change – and then assist with the manoeuvre in complete safety, thus improving the driving experience.
Here’s an image of some of the lab work being performed,
I wonder what it’s going to look like when it’s ready for testing with real people. I’m pretty sure most people are not going to be interested in wearing head caps for very long. I imagine the researchers have come to this conclusion too, which means that they are likely considering some very sophisticated sensors. (I hope so, otherwise the researchers are somewhat delusional. Sadly, this can be true. I speak from experiences dealing with technical experts who seemed to be designing their software for failure, i.e. the average person using would be likely to make an error.)