To help develop a fascinating new prosthetic device, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is providing $1.5 million to a team of University of Washington researchers including specialists in neuroengineering and computer science.
The team is developing a brain-computer-spine interface that’s intended to restore hand and arm function in people who have suffered spinal cord injuries. It’s basically an implantable computer, the size of a pacemaker, that will relay signals from the brain into the spinal cord.
The project blends years of research into translating and transmitting brain signals to overcome paralysis with work on low-power, wireless computer systems.
As envisioned, the neuroprosthetic devices will be wirelessly updated and recharged, perhaps through a coil that patients will sleep above to recharge their batteries.
Having the system fully implanted and wirelessly rechargeable minimizes the surgeries needed to keep the system running. It also minimizes the infection risk of systems that pass through the skin, explained Chet Moritz, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine.
Researchers around the country are making strides in wiring the brain to limbs, bypassing damaged areas of the spine.
Since about 2007, Moritz has been exploring interspinal microstimulation, applying electrodes to the spinal cord to activate the multiple muscles used in hand movements.
“We’re now in the process of controlling those interspinal electrodes with brain activity,” he said.
Moritz is working with UW computational neuroscientist Adrienne Fairhall and Josh Smith, a computer scientist and head of the UW’s sensor systems laboratory.
“That is where some of the magic happens, in terms of these transdisciplinary collaborations,” Moritz said.
That mix of expertise – plus the possibilities of the research and helping patients not too far in the future – appealed to Kathy Richmond, science officer at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
“It’s just recognizing an exciting opportunity and some researchers who have come together at the right place and the right time to hit this challenge head on,” Richmond said.
The grant will help the team move toward clinical trials in perhaps three to five years.
Moritz said it could take five to 10 moreyears after the trials before the products finally go to market.
No doubt the science fiction aspect of the project appealed to Allen, as well as its scientific and rehabilitative potential.
But Moritz doesn’t see the system being implanted to create superhuman soldiers or Seahawks anytime soon, in part because it will require significant brain surgery.
“I would be surprised if either the neurosurgeons are amenable or the individuals were willing to undergo such a procedure to boost function,” he said.