Brain-Computer Interface Helps Paralyzed Type Faster Than Ever

Feb 21, 2017

BrainGate's brain-computer interface for typing at work.
Credit Stanford University

Researchers at Brown University have helped advance a technology  that allows people to use a computer with nothing but brain power.  The project, dubbed BrainGate, is helping paralyzed people type faster and more accurately than ever before.

Here's how the study worked: Researchers implanted tiny electrodes in the motor cortexes of the brains of three paralyzed people. Those electrodes send signals to a computer, allowing participants to simply think about using their hands to point and click on a virtual computer keyboard. When they did, the words appeared on the screen. One person in the study was able to type more than eight words a minute. That may not sound like a lot, but researcher Leigh Hochberg calls it an improvement.

“That’s approaching the speed that is used in these ubiquitous communication technologies like text messaging and emailing. So, to me, it says the field is making progress," said Hochberg. "Using our BrainGate system has allowed three people with profound physical disability to be able to type quite readily on these keyboards.”

Hochberg says barriers remain when it comes to improving the technology even more.

“One of those challenges is understanding what does that brain activity mean?  When a neuron fires – that’s the neural code. In many ways that’s the language of the nervous system. And we don’t yet fully or even substantially understand that language of the nervous system.”

The study is a partnership with Stanford and Brown Universities and is published online in the journal eLife