Brain-computer interface helps paralysed patient drive again

Almost ten years ago, Aldana Zuniga was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident. Now, a microchip implanted in his brain has helped him get behind the wheel of a car again.

Using only his thoughts to control the speed, Zuniga drove laps in a NASCAR Cup racecar on a track in the US, despite the 2013 car crash leaving him with no mobility below the waist and limited use of his hands and arms.

The brain-computer interface he used was developed by a team of physicians, researchers and engineers. The team was led by neurosurgeon Scott Falci, M.D., from the Falci Institute for Spinal Cord Injuries at Colorado’s Swedish Medical Center, who also founded Falci Adaptive Motorsports in 2012 to help people with mobility impairments drive again.

The team spent over a year adapting the brain-computer interface to read Zuniga’s thoughts. A microchip electrode placed on his brain communicates with a computer in the car to control the engine.

“The electrical changes get picked up on the electrode, travel down a cable underneath his skin to a computer processor,” Falci told CBS Denver. “When the computer recognises that particular fingerprint, it knows to send the signal to the computer in our racecar, and that computer knows to send it to the throttle and to actuate the throttle.”

A specialised helmet picks up Zuniga’s head movements to steer the car, and he can exhale into or inhale from an attached tube to help control the accelerator and brakes.

The initiative was developed largely to demonstrate the ultimate potential of brain-computer interfaces.

We can use this potentially for driving an electric wheelchair, a golf cart, [to] control a robotic arm, control an exoskeleton device, control an implanted medical device,” he explained. “Once we develop that science, that science can be used for all types of systems.

Falci’s system joins others that have found success in translating thoughts into actions in the last couple of years, from an FDA-approved wireless brace that improves hand function in stroke patients to a bionic arm that restores function and feeling in amputees.

Recently, Synchron unveiled study results showing that its stent-like Stentrode system remained safely in place and functional one year after the minimally invasive implant procedure. The device has so far been implanted in a handful of patients who are paralysed due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and who can use the system to send text messages and emails, shop and bank online and even send tweets, all using only their thoughts—plus an eye-tracking device to move the cursor.