One of the many aspects of medicine that I find fascinating is the continuous technological advancements in the field. I particularly enjoy advancements in surgical operating rooms, such as the increased use of robotic surgery to minimize invasiveness and reduce post-operation recovery time. As a neuroscience major, however, I often find myself studying the structure and function of the brain. The brain is a fascinating and extremely complex organ. It is also where some of the most amazing advancements can be made.
In many of my classes we touched upon the idea of a brain-machine interface system, a developing means of restoring motion to paralyzed individuals. The idea is that when our brain tells our body to do make a movement, there are a number of different cells firing. The information that the individual cell sends can be thought of as a vector, it has a direction and a magnitude. Each cell has a particular directional preference – the closer the intended motion is to its preference, the more it will fire. What our brain sends out as a signal is a population code, the summation of all of these cells firing. Our movement then depends on the combination of firing strengths for the different possible directions. Movement, however, depends on signals from the spinal cord. These signals originate in the brain as intention of movement. A brain-machine interface system consists of electrodes implanted in the brain to read the brain’s signals, a computer to interpret these signals, and a prosthetic limb to carry them out. The system can interpret the intention of movement and translate it into actual movement of a robotic limb.
The brain-machine interface has huge potential for improving the lives of people who have lost motor control of one or multiple limbs. Paraplegics and quadriplegics could regain their freedom. Nobody is walking around with fully integrated robotic limbs just yet, though. As of 2012, researchers were able to design a system that allowed a paralyzed individual to grasp and drink from a bottle through a straw, but the equipment is quite bulky and the electrodes that the system depends on are fragile. Research continues in an attempt to construct more portable prosthetics, smaller computing systems, and stronger electrodes. Even with the technology in its current state, the idea that a paralyzed person can still have a means of carrying out movement is amazing. Maybe one day we will get to see people walking around with a few robotic limbs.