Wednesday, July 12, 2006

the power of thought!

n's friend mark really does write about some interesting subjects in the science pages of the times. today it is about a chip in the brain of a paralysed man that helps him to operate machinery. here are some extracts:

The man who can open his e-mails by power of thought
By Mark Henderson
Paralysed knife victim says implant has changed his life

A MAN paralysed from the neck down has learnt to move a computer cursor and an artificial arm by the power of thought alone. The brain implant that has allowed him to do so could be used eventually to control wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs.
The first detailed scientific report on the case of Matthew Nagle, 25, whose spinal cord was severed in a knife attack, shows how sensors that measure brainwaves could allow paralysed patients to improve their quality of life greatly.

Mr Nagle, from Massachusetts, has been fitted with a 4mm-square chip that reads signals in the primary motor cortex of his brain, the region that would control movement if he had the use of his limbs.

When he imagines moving his paralysed body, the implant’s 100 sensors record the activity in his brain and transmit these signals to a computer that controls various devices. In nine months, he has learnt to move a cursor on a computer screen, open e-mails, play simple computer games and adjust the volume of his television. He has also learnt to operate a simple robotic arm.

A paper published today in the journal Nature describes his progress. He can move a cursor to a target on a computer screen with 75 to 85 per cent accuracy. He can also perform many of these actions while conducting a conversation. This suggests that total concentration will not be necessary to operate mind-controlled prosthetic limbs, a critical factor if they are to become part of everyday life.

A second patient, a 55-year-old man with a spinal injury, has also been implanted with the device, called BrainGate, though he has yet to achieve similar results.

Mr Nagle had been paralysed for four years before the study. The results indicate that brain activity involved in motion persists long after spinal injury and can be channelled to control computerised devices. This is important, as many scientists had predicted that the necessary nerve cells might wither with lack of use, making it difficult to harness their signals.

“What is also encouraging is the immediate response from the brain,” Dr Donoghue said. “When asked to ‘think right’ or ‘think left’, patients were able to change their neural activity immediately. And their use of the device is seemingly easy. Patients can control the computer cursor and carry on a conversation at the same time, just as we can simultaneously talk and use our computers.”

i guess it's a toss-up between being excited at the amazing things we humans can learn to do, and going all 1984 on it.

i just finished reading 'never let me go' by kazuo ishiguro which is a tale told by and about a clone developed for organ donation. for me the part that really got to me was the shrinking horror of the 'normal' people when coming into contact with the clones ... not willing to give up the longer lives and greater health they receive from this scheme, they have to demonise these other living beings.

today, however, i am excited that mr nagle, while rooted physically to the spot by his injuries, may now surf the world through his computer.

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