Researchers in the UK are on the verge of producing a technology that might allow paralysed patients to operate bionic limbs via a transmitter brain implant. The technology relies on tiny microprocessors that will sense nerve impulses, decode the signals, and then transmit them to the bionic limbs. All this takes place wirelessly, which makes it unique compared to other experiments in the field, which actually required a wire to be attached to the processor.
While the idea behind this technology has been there for a while, the means with which to actually decode impulses and relay them intelligibly has been missing. Perhaps the most important aspect of the new technology are the decoding algorithms which give the chips the ability to recognize which impulses will control which limb, rather than the relaying of the signal aspect. In fact, this is a potential step towards an actual integration between microprocessors and the brain, which has thousands of potential applications, from physical training to data storage, augmented reality to internet connectivity. In fact, the zenith of the technology will be to provide an artificial link between the limb and the brain, bypassing the damaged nerves (or centers) that are causing the paralysis. A possible way to do this would be by transmitting signals from the brain implant to another implant, a stimulator in the spinal cord.
While the technology is definitely interesting, don’t expect it to arrive very soon. Scientists from the University of Leicester, the University of Newcastle and the Imperial College London - who jointly developed the technology - say that it will take nearly 5 years for it to hit the streets.
The biggest hurdle is to transmit the information wirelessly from the brain chip, as a single electrode may produce up to 30,000 data points per second, and there will be hundreds of electrodes. "It's a huge amount of data, so the bandwidth won't be enough," said Prof Quian Quiroga. "We're trying to do some basic processing on the chip to reduce the bandwidth. So instead of 30,000 data points per second, maybe we'll be sending 100 data points per second, or 1,000."