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Brain chip offers hope for paralyzed

By Simon Hooper for CNN

The brain implant measures just four square millimeters.
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(CNN) -- A team of neuroscientists have successfully implanted a chip into the brain of a quadriplegic man, allowing him to control a computer.

Since the insertion of the tiny device in June, the 25-year-old has been able to check email and play computer games simply using thoughts. He can also turn lights on and off and control a television, all while talking and moving his head.

The chip, called BrainGate, is being developed by Massachusetts-based neurotechnology company Cyberkinetics, following research undertaken at Brown University, Rhode Island.

Results of the pilot clinical study will be presented to the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in San Diego, California, on Sunday. Up to five more patients are to be recruited for further research into the safety and potential utility of the device.

BrainGate offers the possibility of hitherto unimaginable levels of independence for the severely disabled.

Although many are able to control computers with their eyes or tongue, such techniques remain dependent on muscular function and require extensive training.

John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown and a co-founder of Cyberkinetics in 2001, said that BrainGate could help paralyzed peopled control wheelchairs and communicate using email and Internet-based phone systems.

"Our ultimate goal is to develop the BrainGate System so that it can be linked to many useful devices," said Donoghue, who this month received an innovation award from Discover Magazine for his work on BrainGate.

"This includes medical devices such as muscle stimulators, to give the physically disabled a significant improvement in their ability to interact with the world."

Donoghue's initial research, published in the science journal Nature in 2002, consisted of attaching an implant to a monkey's brain that enabled it to play a simple pinball computer game remotely.

The four-millimeter square chip, which is placed on the surface of the motor cortex area of the brain, contains 100 electrodes each thinner than a hair which detect neural electrical activity. The sensor is then connected to a computer via a small wire attached to a pedestal mounted on the skull.

"While these results are preliminary, I am extremely encouraged by what has been achieved to-date," said John Mukand of the Sargent Rehabilitation Center, who oversaw the pilot study.

"We now have early evidence that a person unable to move their arms, hands and legs can quickly gain control of a system which uses thoughts to control a computer and perform meaningful tasks. With additional development this may represent a significant breakthrough for people with severe disabilities."

Surgeon Gerhard Friehs, associate professor of clinical neurosciences at Brown Medical School, who implanted the device, described the results as "spectacular" and "almost unbelievable."

"Here we have a research participant who is capable of controlling his environment by thought alone -- something we have only found in science fiction so far," said Friehs.

"I hope that the trial will continue as successfully as it has started and that all other candidates will have as great an experience as our first candidate did."

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