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NeuroLife: a brain implant that may circumvent paralysis

Millions of people worldwide suffer from diseases that lead to paralysis. Research in neural prosthetic devices has substantially grown over the past few years to combat this condition. These devices allow links to be made between the nervous system and the peripheral world by decoding neural signals from the brain and effectively translating them into limb movements. NeuroLife is an experimental device that aims to treat paralysis by creating an artificial link between the brain and the body.

NeuroLife was developed by Batelle, a global non-profit research and development organization located in Columbus, Ohio, US, to benefit people with spinal cord injuries. The technology consists of a tiny chip implanted in the primary motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for movement. This chip records brain activity as the patient thinks about a particular movement. A machine learning computer algorithm then decodes this brain activity and interprets the movement the subject is thinking about. Finally, a wearable sleeve with 260 electrodes activates the individual muscles to evoke the intended movement.

The first study participant to put the system to use is a 24 year old male with quadriplegia (loss of use of all four limbs) sustained from a diving accident. NeuroLife has been successful in executing continuous cortical control of six different wrist and hand motions. With continuous usage, the participant was able to use the system to complete functional tasks relevant to daily living.

The investigators plan to continue to refine the current system with the hope of turning it to a commercial product in the near future. Changes are being made to the device’s hardware to make it more wearable and portable, and the software is being upgraded so that the algorithms can run on small tablets and phones. Investigators have stated that the ultimate goal of the system is for patients to take it home and use it for daily activities.

It will most likely take a considerable amount of time for this technology to restore full functionality. However, NeuroLife has demonstrated the promising possibilities of brain-machine interfacing and offers hope for people living with paralysis worldwide.

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