The age of the cyborg is one step closer today after a team of scientists and engineers connected a human being to a computer by inserting electrodes through the veins.
The electronic interface used a stent – a tiny expandable tube of the kind often used in heart surgery – to pass the wires into the body.
These electrodes picked up the tiny electrical signals generated by the nervous system when a person thinks about moving and passed these signals to a computer.
The two patients in the trial both suffer from the degenerative neurological condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – often called Motor Neurone Disease, or Lou Gehrig's disease in America.
For the trial, reports the Journal of Noninterventional Surgery, the test subjects simply thought about a variety of different motions and the various subtly differing impulses were then sent wirelessly, through an infrared transmitter, to a computer which used a machine-learning algorithm to convert these impulses into a set of controls for a computer mouse.
Used in combination with an eye-tracker for cursor navigation, the trial subjects successfully used an unmodified version of the Windows 10 operating system control to perform a number of essential day-to-day tasks.
Both participants went home with the interface fitted and successfully sent text messages, did their online shopping and logged into their internet banking systems.
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"Self-expanding stent technology has been well demonstrated in both cardiac and neurological applications to treat other diseases. We just use that feature and put electrodes on top of the stent," explains Thomas Oxley, CEO of Synchron, a company that aims to develop the technology for commercial applications.
He says that the "self-expanding monolithic thin-film stent-electrode array” technology is basically plug and play, and requires only a short stay in hospital to fit.
In the future, people with severe neurological conditions such as ALS or Parkinson's may be able to control remote manipulators or even complete exoskeletons using this vein interface.
And the potential applications of the technology are not purely medical.
The preliminary studies were financially supported by a number of agencies, including the Microsystems Technology Office at the US Defence Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), Office of Naval Research, US Department of Defence.
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