The Future Is Now?: Building a Neurobridge

By Kim Smiley

A chip was recently inserted into the brain of a man paralyzed from the chest down with the goal of allowing him to move his hand.  The tiny microchip is part of a system, called a Neurobridge, which uses a computer and a sleeve that fits around the patient’s arm in addition to the chip to allow the patient to communicate with his limb by bypassing his damaged spinal cord.  If the procedure works, the patient will be the first paralyzed person who has used his own thoughts to control a limb.  It will be a few weeks before the success of the procedure can be verified, but this is already an exciting development with the promise of amazing future applications of this type of technology.

So how does this Neurobridge work?  An article by The Washington Post “Ohio surgeons hope chip in man’s brain lets him control paralyzed hand with thoughts” by Jim Tankersley discussed the procedure in detail.  The patient’s brain was mapped prior to the surgery using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.  The patient was shown pictures of hands moving and the areas of his brain that showed activity while he imagined moving his hand were recorded.  Once the surgery began, a portion of the patient’s skull was removed to allow access to his brain.  Electric pulses were fired into the area of the brain believed to control hand movement.  The patient was unable to move his hands, but did have movement of his upper arms so the team watched for a response in his upper arms to verify that the correct location was identified to insert the chip.

Once the chip was inserted into the brain, it was connected by wire to a transmitter port at the skull.  This transmitter port is connected by cable to a computer.  The signal from the brain then travels through the cable into the computer where it is run through an algorithm that mirrors the brainwaves that are present when a person is thinking about moving.  The signal now mimics brainwaves and is sent to a sleeve wrapped around the arm.  The sleeve has tiny electrodes that are used to stimulate the muscles to make the hand move.

It’s an ambitious project that if successful could help not only paralyzed patients, but others with limited motor function like stroke victims.   And as amazing as a Neurobridge sounds, it’s just one of many types of brain implants being actively researched and some of the ideas sound more like science fiction than plain old science.

The Neurobridge process can be illustrated by building a Process Map.  A Process Map visually shows the steps and is generally easier to read than the same information written in paragraph form.  To see a high level Process Map of this procedure, click on “Download” PDF above.