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Brain chip heralds neurotech dawn

Prof. John Donoghue of Brown University led the team that developed the brain chip implant.


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(CNN) -- The era of the real-life bionic man may be a little bit closer after scientists in the U.S. announced they had successfully implanted a chip into the brain of a quadriplegic man enabling him to use a computer and operate a robotic arm.

Professor John Donoghue of Brown University, who led the research, told CNN the breakthrough heralded the "dawn of the age of neurotechnology" after the results of the study were published in the latest edition of Nature.

The device, known as BrainGate, enabled 25-year-old Matthew Nagle to perform basic tasks such as moving a computer cursor, changing TV channels and even operating the fingers on a prosthetic hand.

Nagle was recruited to take part in the study after having his spinal chord severed in a knife attack five years ago.

Donoghue said the breakthrough represented an important step forward from existing therapeutic instruments such as cochlear implants that restore hearing or the deep brain stimulation devices used to treat Parkinson's sufferers.

"We have devices that can put signals into the brain that help treat disorders and restore function but we don't have devices for getting signals back out of the brain," said Donoghue.

"That's where we have really provided something new and that's really opening up a new vista for the field."

Donoghue said the long-term goal of the study was to develop brain computer interfaces (BCIs) that would enable the paralyzed to move their limbs.

"This study shows it is possible for someone with a longstanding spinal cord injury to use the brain signals from the movement areas of their brain to control the world again. We hope that one day we can physically repair the nervous system by connecting brain activity back up to the muscles and allowing them to move again."

But some futurists believe that could be the tip of the iceberg, with nanotechnological advances enabling the creation of chip implants small enough to sit within the human nervous system and cybernetic progress one day enabling the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the paralysed to walk.

Beyond alleviating the effects of severe disabilities, normal functioning humans could also benefit from "upgrades" to improve intelligence, sensory awareness or simply to counter the effects of aging.

Donoghue said such developments remained a long way off: "I think for the foreseeable future the center that picks up these brain signals needs to be on the inside. That requires surgery and I just don't see us having surgery."

But he said the miniaturization of signal technology could be applied in other medical fields, eventually enabling people to enjoy healthcare customized in response to information provided by chips implanted within the body.

"One could imagine something like this analyzing all kinds of things about the state of the heart, the condition of the blood or the amount of oxygen in it. We'll have little laboratories in our bodies. It's part of a whole revolution in our ability to analyze what's going on."

But some futurists predict non-therapeutic cybernetic enhancements or "upgrades" could one day become as popular as cosmetic surgery, contact lenses or false teeth.

Cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University predicted there would be a rapidly growing market for a range of cybernetic improvements such as memory enhancement, an increased range of senses, dieting control and thought communication.

"Once the technology has been proven and is commercially available at relatively low cost, it is expected that the range of people making use of it will increase dramatically," he said.

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm for the prospect of a cybernetically enhanced future though, including some well-known technophiles.

Last year Bill Gates said he wouldn't want a brain chip implanted even if the technology existed to do so.

One of the guys that works at Microsoft always says to me 'I'm ready, plug me in,"' Gates said last year. "I don't feel quite the same way. I'm happy to have the computer over there and I'm over here."

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