In recent years, neuroscientists and neuroengineers working in prosthetics have begun to develop brain-implantable sensors that can measure signals from individual neurons, and after passing those signals through a mathematical decode algorithm, can use them to control computer cursors with thoughts.
Now, a team of Stanford researchers including Indian origins have developed an algorithm, known as ReFIT, that vastly improves the speed and accuracy of neural prosthetics that control computer cursors.
Research associate Dr Vikash Gilja and bioengineering doctoral candidate Paul Nuyujukian led the team.
In side-by-side demonstrations with rhesus monkeys, cursors controlled by the ReFIT algorithm doubled the performance of existing systems and approached performance of the real arm. Better yet, more than four years after implantation, the new system is still going strong, while previous systems have seen a steady decline in performance over time.
"These findings could lead to greatly improved prosthetic system performance and robustness in paralysed people, which we are actively pursuing as part of the FDA Phase-I BrainGate2 clinical trial here at Stanford," said Krishna Shenoy, a professor of electrical engineering, bioengineering and neurobiology at Stanford.
The system relies on a silicon chip implanted into the brain, which records "action potentials" in neural activity from an array of electrode sensors and sends data to a computer. The frequency with which action potentials are generated provides the computer key information about the direction and speed of the user's intended movement
The ReFIT algorithm that decodes these signals represents a departure from earlier models.
The system is able to make adjustments on the fly when while guiding the cursor to a target, just as a hand and eye would work in tandem to move a mouse-cursor onto an icon on a computer desktop. If the cursor were straying too far to the left, for instance, the user likely adjusts their imagined movements to redirect the cursor to the right
To test the new system, the team gave monkeys the task of mentally directing a cursor to a target "an onscreen dot" and holding the cursor there for half a second. ReFIT performed vastly better than previous technology in terms of both speed and accuracy.
The path of the cursor from the starting point to the target was straighter and it reached the target twice as quickly as earlier systems, achieving 75 to 85 percent of the speed of real arms.
"This paper reports very exciting innovations in closed-loop decoding for brain-machine interfaces. These innovations should lead to a significant boost in the control of neuroprosthetic devices and increase the clinical viability of this technology," said Jose Carmena, associate professor of electrical engineering and neuroscience at the University of California Berkeley.
Critical to ReFIT's time-to-target improvement was its superior ability to stop the cursor. While the old model's cursor reached the target almost as fast as ReFIT, it often overshot the destination, requiring additional time and multiple passes to hold the target
The team introduced a second innovation in the way ReFIT encodes information about the position and velocity of the cursor. Gilja said that previous algorithms could interpret neural signals about either the cursor's position or its velocity, but not both at once. ReFIT can do both, resulting in faster, cleaner movements of the curso
The results have been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.