BrainGate, based at Brown University, is a consortium of researchers from many diverse fields including: neuroscience, neurology, engineering, computer science, mathematics and neurosurgery. The team is dedicated to developing technologies which help to restore mobility, communication and independence to individuals who suffer from neurologic diseases, trauma or limb loss. BrainGate researchers develop and tests devices such as prosthetics that can be manipulated using a brain-machine interface (BMI) and BMIs that allow people with locked-in syndrome to communicate using their brain waves to manipulate a computer cursor.
Originally from Hungary, Dr. Janos Perge is a professor of neuroscience is currently a postdoctoral research associate with the BrainGate team. His specific area of study is fluctuations in brain signals and system performance over time, with the intent to identify the biological and technical sources that create these changes. His research is vital for the development of implantable BMIs that can operate for decades.
Currently, Dr. Perge and his colleagues are working on a number of clinical trials using BMI, in order to fine tune the devices enough to introduce them to the medical market place so that they are accessible to anyone who needs them.
“What is very important for a brain-machine interface is to operate reliably, this is the research I have been doing. It is important to understand the reasons why the performance of a device might change over time and how we a overcome those instabilities,” says Dr. Perge.
These fluctuations can happen for a number of reasons. They can have technical causes, because no device is perfect, but they can also happen for biological reasons, because the brain is a dynamic system which changes over time. By overcoming these instabilities, BrainGate will be able to develop BMIs that people can use consistently 24/7 for decades at a time.
Another important aspect of current research is developing BMIs that can fit each individual users need. This is obviously not without its challenges but customization of BMIs is essential.
“For instance, we are developing a technology to control a multi-joint robot arm in three dimensions. We demonstrated that a person was able to drink a cup of coffee using a BMI to control the robot arm. But there might be situations when someone would be equally happy just to be able to say yes or no, just to be able to answer Do you need anything? Are you tired? Are you in pain? So a simple binary switch would be useful for those who are unable to communicate,” Dr. Perge explains.
BMI research and development has advanced rapidly over the past decade and are bound to continue to upgrade at a high speed over the coming decade. In the future, the application of BMIs may extend beyond the realms of medical assistive devices, and be available to all of us on a day-to-day basis. However, once again, the functionality and accuracy of the devices is a crucial factor.
“Eventually it comes back to convenience. Of course, it might sound really flashy to control your computer game by thinking about it, but eventually, when it comes to practicality, you will just use a system that is most convenient, whether it’s your own hands or a brain-machine interface device?” says Dr. Perge.
Of course, for people who have restricted mobility or those who cannot move at all, even just a simple device that can increase their independence, such as a binary switch, which enables them to answer yes or no, can make a huge difference in their lives.
“We researchers at BrainGate continue to be very excited to develop multiple technologies for people with disabilities, and it’s a very interesting journey and there is always an interesting challenge that needs to be resolved, which makes BMI a very fascinating, new and dynamic area of research. Another important thing is that the people who are involved in these clinical trials are doing this by the strength of their will and we owe them because they do this without any compensation, knowing that this may not come down in their own lives but that it will help the next generation of people suffering from severe disabilities.”
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