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The social internet has succeeded in connecting people all over the planet, for better or worse. We can easily log onto any number of platforms and gain direct access to people and information, but that that access isn’t evenly available to everyone.
Questions of resources and access to technology like computers or smartphones draw an economic line with respect to who can scroll Instagram and who can’t. Even if you have the economic means, there’s a physical requirement which prevents individuals with degenerative disease or traumatic injury from participating. Those same limitations don’t just apply to social media, of course, and developing methods of circumventing them provides an opportunity for people to more fully engage with family, friends, and the larger community.
That’s the aim of Synchron, a company working to develop more effective computer-brain interfaces which allow people to translate their thoughts into words or actions. The team at Synchron has created and tested an implantable device known as a Stentrode Brain Computer Interface or SCBI. It takes the first part of its name from a minimally invasive procedure used to deliver the electronics to the brain.
Patients fitted with an SCBI undergo a surgery which ferries the electrodes through the jugular vein and into the primary motor cortex. It’s a procedure similar to those used to treat stroke victims, and doesn’t require opening the skull or carrying out open brain surgery.
Once the implant is in place, patients undergo a series of training exercises meant to train the device to read information from their brains. A patient might be asked to think about performing a number of actions like clenching a fist or tapping a foot. The brain activity is measured, catalogued, and assigned a task clicking a mouse. In many cases, participants have either limited or no muscle function and the device is reading intended motion from the brain, in place of actual motion in a limb. In this way, thoughts can be translated into actions on a computer.
Recently, Synchron announced a milestone in their work when an Australian ALS patient, Philip O’Keefe, became the first person in history to post a message to social media using only his mind and the SCBI device. The tweet was posted to the account of Synchron’s CEO Thomas Oxley, reading simply “no need for keystrokes or voices. I created this tweet just by thinking it. #helloworldbci.”
Mr. O’Keefe experiences progressive paralysis as a consequence of ALS and received the Stentrode device in April of 2020. In a press release from Synchron announcing the milestone, O’Keefe likened using the SCBI to riding a bike, saying it took practice to get used to, but quickly became natural.
By using his computer brain interface, O’Keefe is able to compose emails, browse the web, and keep up with his business dealings.
“These fun holiday tweets are actually an important moment for the field of implantable brain-computer interface,” Oxley said in the press release. “They highlight the connection, hop, and freedom that BCIs give to people like Phil who have had so much of their functional independence taken away due to debilitating paralysis.”
Synchron is planning to move toward human trials in the United States later this year, treating patients experiencing paralysis. They’re also looking toward additional applications including diagnosing and treating neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and epilepsy, as well as non-medical uses.
Certainly, those individuals with a critical need for technological interventions like these should receive the benefit of them first. However, as this technology progresses, it’s possible that the Stentrode, or devices like it, will enter the wider population, allowing everyone to augment their actions wirelessly with their thoughts.
It might be nice to be able to type out a text discreetly while at the movie theater, but we don’t like to think about what we might accidentally tweet while we’re not thinking about what we’re thinking.