Electronic Design

Neural Electronics Breed Hope For Widening Computer Access

Where art Thou?" Answered Adam, "Here I am." This interaction between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden in the Bible's Old Testament has a direct relationship to an important aspect of today's rush to Internet connectivity.

In this exchange, God, the almighty and all-knowing, asks where Adam is —not because He doesn't know, but because He demands acknowledgement. So, too, do we flock to the Internet in a similar fashion to satisfy a similar need. Theodore Kaczynski quintessentially demonstrated this when he published the manifesto that led to his downfall.

But what about those who are physically incapable of interacting with a computer to achieve this widespread acknowledgement? Will they be isolated forever? Banished to solitary confinement within the walls of their brain, unable to communicate their most basic needs? Maybe not. Breakthroughs in neural prosthetics and the analysis of event-related potential (ERP) within the brain offer hope to those with crippling physical disorders.

Though we're far from the virtual world created by William Gibson in his groundbreaking science-fiction novel Neuromancer, the connection of external devices to nerves has already begun. Take cochlear implants, for example. By stimulating certain regions of the vasilar nerve, which runs from the ear to the brain, profoundly deaf patients have been given the gift of hearing. Granted, it's on a limited scale, but it is enough to at least carry on a conversation.

An even more exciting development, direct stimulation of the optic nerve, has been shown to give enough definition to completely blind patients to discern shadows and shapes. Still, an actual eye implant may yet be years away.

However, these are sensory prosthetics, whereby external phenomena are translated into signals the brain can understand. The excitement of these breakthroughs is quickly overshadowed by recent research that has demonstrated the ability to detect a signal from the brain that would normally move a thumb or finger. That signal could then move a mouse on a computer screen. The patient in the study was completely incapable of communicating, except by eye movement. But after much practice, he was able to guide the mouse and pick out characters on a computer screen to form a response to questions, just by thinking about moving his thumb.

Of course, the downside of this breakthrough is the invasive nature of the implants. This limits the treatment to extreme cases of disability. An approach with broader implications analyzes the pattern of potentials generated within the brain, using external electrodes, when patients move their external limbs. The patterns (or ERPs), in theory, then can be used to control prosthetic limbs connected via a computer. This is similar to research that uses electrodes to examine the potentials generated when someone recognizes the letters of the alphabet. Though extremely slow, this has been shown to enable subjects to place the letters on a computer screen, using the appropriate software.

All of these technologies are in their nascent stages. Surprisingly, the physical electronics aren't the limitation. Materials research has a long way to go in invasive procedures, while ERP techniques are only now starting to acquire the level of computer power and software complexity to analyze the patterns within the brain. We won't be "jacking" into computer consoles any time soon.

Despite the obvious limitations, the research holds the promise of allowing the less-endowed among us to finally shed the limitations of their mortal coil. The time is approaching for them to shout "We are here" as they, too, surf the communications wave into the new millennium. In the meantime, contact me at [email protected].

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