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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Could the future of office work be sitting inside a microchip smaller than a dime? Researchers from Brown University say a chip inserted into the brain can allow people to type without the need for a keyboard.

The implant captures brain signals associated with handwriting and turns them into text on a computer screen in real time. Like something out of science fiction, just thinking about the hand movements which produce written letters is enough for the tech to make it a reality.

More importantly, the technology could restore the ability to communicate for people who suffer from paralysis following an accident or other condition. The participant testing the hardware was able to type up to 90 characters a minute, more than double the previous record.

“An important mission of our BrainGate consortium research is to restore rapid, intuitive communication for people with severe speech or motor impairments,” says Dr. Leigh Hochberg in a university release. “Frank’s demonstration of fast, accurate neural decoding of handwriting marks an exciting new chapter in the development of clinically useful neurotechnologies.”

Designing a faster way to communicate

Brain microchip
As part of the BrainGate clinical trial, researchers are using tiny electrode arrays to record signals from the motor cortex of the brain. Those signals can then be used to control robotic prostheses, computers or other devices. The hope is that such a system may one help restore communication and movement in people with paralysis due to injury or illness. Most recently, a clinical trial participant used the device to write text on a computer just by thinking about the movements involved in handwriting. (Credit: Brown University)

It has taken the scientists several years to fine tune their technology so it can capture and interpret different brain signals. Earlier versions relied on people pointing to and clicking letters on a virtual keyboard, but they could only write about 40 characters per minute.

“We want to find new ways of letting people communicate faster,” says co-author Dr. Frank Willett of Stanford University “This new system uses both the rich neural activity recorded by intracortical electrodes and the power of language models that, when applied to the neurally decoded letters, can create rapid and accurate text.”

World-changing breakthrough for paralyzed individuals

Researchers tested the new model with the help of a 65-year-old man paralyzed from the neck down due to a spinal cord injury. The team placed two tiny electrodes, about the size of a baby aspirin, in the man’s brain. Specifically, scientists connected the electrodes to the area which controls the right arm and hand movements — the motor cortex.

Study authors then asked their volunteer to imagine writing so the sensors could record the patterns his brain produced with each letter. The study reveals the paralyzed man could copy sentences and answer questions at a similar speed to someone of the same age typing on a smartphone.

“The system is so fast because each letter elicits a highly distinctive activity pattern, making it relatively easy for the algorithm to distinguish one from another,” Dr. Willett adds.

Their discovery is the latest in a series of advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) by the BrainGate collaboration. The project brings together researchers from Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, the Providence VA Medical Center, Stanford University, and Case Western Reserve University. In 2012, BrainGate researchers developed a brain-chip which allowed people to operate robotic prosthetics by just thinking about movements.

“The people who enroll in the BrainGate trial are amazing,” Dr. Hochberg concludes. “It’s their pioneering spirit that not only allows us to gain new insights into human brain function, but that leads to the creation of systems that will help other people with paralysis.”

The findings appear in the journal Nature.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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