The individual neuron approach has its drawbacks, Gilja said. "From an engineering perspective, the process of isolating single neurons is difficult, due to minute physical movements between the electrode and nearby neurons, making it error-prone," he said. ReFIT focuses on small groups of neurons instead of single neurons.
By abandoning the single-neuron approach, the team also reaped a surprising benefit: performance longevity. Neural implant systems that are fine-tuned to specific neurons degrade over time. It is a common belief in the field that after six months to a year, they can no longer accurately interpret the brain's intended movement. Gilja said the Stanford system is working very well more than four years later.
"Despite great progress in brain-computer interfaces to control the movement of devices such as prosthetic limbs, we've been left so far with halting, jerky, Etch-a-Sketch-like movements. Dr. Shenoy's study is a big step toward clinically useful brain-machine technology that have faster, smoother, more natural movements," said James Gnadt, PhD, a program director in Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health.
For the time being, the team has been focused on improving cursor movement rather than the creation of robotic limbs, but that is not out of the question, Gilja said. Near term, precise, accurate control of a cursor is a simplified task with enormous value for paralyzed people.
"We think we have a good chance of giving them something very useful," he said. The team is now translating the
|Contact: Andrew Myers|
Stanford School of Engineering