Researchers in Australia have developed the “holy grail” of biotechnology – a device that is capable of mind control in humans.
The device is the size of a paper clip, and it sits inside a blood vessel next to the brain. Researchers say the tiny device may help people with paralysis to walk again, amongst other things.
The stentrode, described as a “bionic spinal cord”, records brain activity and converts the signals into electrical commands.
In trials, the device has been shown to control bionic limbs, and doctors say it could also let a person move a wheelchair with their thoughts.
A team of researchers is intending to implant the stentrode in a small group of spinal cord patients next year at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Professor Clive May, a neurophysiologist at the Florey Institute, said the device offered users the ability to become mobile again.
“What has been shown in other instances is that patients can learn over time to use their brain to move devices in a particular way that they choose to do,” he said.
“What we have done is taken a stent, which is normally put into an artery to expand the artery.
“We’ve used that same technology and we’ve put micro-electrodes around it and we worked out a way of inserting this up through blood vessels into a blood vessel in the brain that’s just above the motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls movement.”
He said the biggest advantage of the device was that major brain surgery was not needed.
“All the other devices require a craniotomy to insert them, which means removing part of the skull,” he said.
“Some of these devices are actually punched into the brain tissue itself and obviously that can cause damage and signals from these other devices tend to disappear with time.
“So a big advantage of our device is that it can be put in through a small nick in the blood vessel in the neck and then, in what we think will be a day procedure, put up into a blood vessel in the brain.”
Professor Terry O’Brien, head of medicine at Royal Melbourne Hospital and the University of Melbourne, said the device was a “holy grail” for bionics research.
“To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time without damaging the brain is an amazing development in modern medicine,” he said in a statement.
“It can also be potentially used in people with a range of diseases aside from spinal cord injury, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders.”
Professor May said although it would still be some time before the device could be used, it could have widespread use.
“There are many people who’ve come back from the wars who have not any spinal cord injuries but amputations,” he said.
“Particularly in the US, there are tens of thousands of young men with single or multiple amputations.
“These devices will not only be able to be used to drive an exoskeleton or a wheelchair, but the aim is to get devices that will be able to move a bionic arm as well so that will give people much more freedom to live a normal life.”
The research, funded by a number of organisations including the Australian Defence Health Foundation and the US Defence Department, is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.