Brain-Computer Interface Technology Wins Breakthrough Award
McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty members Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, MD, PhD, UPMC neurosurgeon and assistant professor of neurological surgery and bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh Schools of Medicine and Engineering, and Andrew Schwartz, PhD, professor of neurobiology, Pitt School of Medicine, and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Michael Boninger, MD, director, UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, chair, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Pitt School of Medicine, and their team received a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award for their brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. In the award’s eighth year, Popular Mechanics continues to recognize the innovators and products that have dramatically advanced the fields of technology, medicine, space exploration, automotive design, environmental engineering, and more.
In the team’s project, a BCI was placed in a patient with spinal cord injuries to test if it is possible for them to control external devices, such as a computer cursor or a prosthetic limb, with their thoughts. The project builds upon ongoing research conducted in epilepsy patients who had the interfaces temporarily placed on their brains and were able to move cursors and play computer games, as well as in monkeys that through interfaces guided a robotic arm to feed themselves marshmallows and turn a doorknob.
Seven years after a motorcycle accident damaged his spinal cord and left him paralyzed, a BCI based on electrocorticography (ECoG) was placed on the motor cortex surface of 30-year-old Tim Hemmes of Evans City, Pa. Mr. Hemmes was the first to participate in the trial assessing whether the thoughts of a person with spinal cord injury can be used to control the movement of an external device, such as a computer cursor or a sophisticated prosthetic arm. The project used a grid of electrodes placed on the surface of the brain to control the arm.
The team plans to make the technology wireless, and to include sensors in the prosthesis that can send signals back to the brain to simulate sensation. It might be possible to connect BCIs to existing devices that stimulate muscle fibers in the arm and hand, in effect bypassing the spinal cord injury to allow these individuals to use their own limbs again, the researchers said. That approach could be studied in future trials.