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Brain electrodes help disabled man operate computer by thought

The finding, in yesterday's edition of the science journal Nature, suggests scientists may soon be able to build devices to help make life easier for the severely disabled. In the long run, researchers said, they hope to be able to use the brain signaling process to activate limb muscles. Matthew Nagle, of Massachusetts, has been paralyzed from the neck down since 2001 with a spinal-cord injury, the report said. When the sensors were implanted in June 2004, Nagle learned to control a computer cursor. In a year, he was able to draw shapes using a paint program, play the “Pong” video game, change TV channels and use a robotic limb to grasp objects. “We are eager to expand on this initial proof of concept toward one day providing improved independence and overall quality of life,” said Timothy Surgenor, chief executive officer for Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc., the Foxborough, Massachusetts-based firm that developed the implants, in a statement yesterday. Shares of the company rose 4 cents, or 2.7%, to $1.51 at 12:35 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading, after climbing as much as 10%. They gained 5% yesterday. The research also established that movement signals can persist in the brain long after a spinal-cord injury and that the brain's communicating signals can be recorded, scientists said.

Nagle, who was 25 when the study was written, was one of two patients to use the BrainGate Neural Interface System, as the combined technology is known. The test didn't work as well in the second study subject, a 55-year-old man with a similar injury, the report said. His unit had electrical problems, and it took him 7 to 10 months to learn to control a cursor. BrainGate consists of a sensor that's about the size of a baby aspirin and contains 100 electrodes that are each thinner than a human hair. The electrodes, which pick up the electrical signals constantly being fired off by the brain's neurons, are surgically implanted on a part of the brain that helps control voluntary movement. The signals are then sent by way of a gold wire out through the scalp, where they connect to a cable that runs to a computer, the report said. John Donoghue, a professor and director of the brain-science program at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and chief scientific officer of Cyberkinetics, was a lead investigator. Donoghue was involved in research in the late 1990s that helped gather data from large groups of cells in the brain.

Researchers are hopeful that the devices, known as neuromotor prosthetics, may one day be used to control a range of devices from wheelchairs to prosthetic limbs. The report said BrainGate is in early development and the quality of its signal seems to vary from patient to patient. Even Nagle's level of control, the researchers said, “is considerably less than that of an able-bodied person using a manually controlled computer cursor.” The study is part of a clinical trial being conducted in the early stage of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval process, the report said. (Bloomberg)