Paralyzed patients who been unable speak or move for 15 years can now direct robotic limbs to move on their own by using their minds to control the movements. This potentially life-altering technological breakthrough called BrainGate was pioneered by Brown neuroscientist John Donoghue to improve the quality of life for those paralyzed as a result of a stroke or a catastrophic injury.
BrainGate is currently in the experimental trial phase but is anticipated for widespread use within a decade. It works by using a neural-interface system that side-steps nerve damage allowing the brain to communicate directly with a pill-sized device placed in the motor cortex of patients, the area of the brain that controls voluntary movement. Then, when patients imagine a movement of the robotic arm, an electric signal is sent from their brains to the computers connecting the robotic limb. The computers recognize the brain’s intentions and direct the arm to move in the way the patient wishes – such as grasping a cup, bringing it to the mouth and placing it back down.
The most significant barrier to widespread use of this technology is its high cost. However, the cost will be weighted against the expense of care giving for paralyzed people who need around the clock care and cannot function on their own. Market demand for alternative uses for brain control will also drive improvements that reduce costs.
If this technology goes mainstream it could potentially lead to legal reforms in regards to costs, time, money, emotional stress, etc., associated with lawsuits for damages from catastrophic injuries.