Putting Thought into Action

The enormous media attention acquired last month by Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University for his paper on a monkey’s cortical control of a robot arm is both confounding and promising (see article on thought-controlled devices, p1). Anyone who’s been following the field of brain-computer interfaces knows that several research institutions, including teams at Caltech, Brown, Arizona State, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and elsewhere have been conducting similar experiments for years. And anyone who’s been reading this publication since its inception knows that a commercial firm, Neural Signals, has already demonstrated the ability of a locked-in human patient to control an external device using an implanted cortical microelectrode.

So why all the fuss now? This was a topic of discussion at the recent Neural Prosthesis Workshop in Bethesda, MD last month (see Conference Report, p6). Some researchers, including Andy Schwartz from the University of Pittsburgh, took issue with some of the claims of priority made by Nicolelis in this and previous papers. Another participant, Eberhard Fetz from the University of Washington, harkened back to his 1969 paper on operant control of neural cell activity, which showed subjects could deflect a needle on an electrical meter using cortical control. “If I had known back then that a needle arm is really a robot arm, my career would be different today,” he quipped.

Many other neural prosthesis researchers believe there is too much attention placed on the cortical control of motor prostheses and not enough on the actual prostheses that will be controlled by all this thinking. We find it curious that the same media outlets that take a keen interest in monkeys controlling a robot arm don’t seem quite as interested in human beings controlling their own paralyzed arms, especially after that product was removed from the market for lack of interest.

Nonetheless, we should be quick to appreciate the value of any publicity, and the Duke-Nicolelis PR engine should be congratulated for pushing the right buttons to make that happen. Much of the publicity value in this story stems from the fact that the Duke researchers chose to publish their work in a new on-line journal called Public Library of Science Biology. This journal has attracted a good deal of media attention in part because of its dramatically different publishing model and in part because each journal article is accompanied by a synopsis targeted at the general public. These are important developments, in our opinion.

But the other reason for our optimism concerning this flash of public interest in brain computer interfaces is that it highlights the potential synergy still waiting to happen between neurodiagnostics and neurostimulation firms. Whether you’re looking at EEG signals or output from an implanted electrode array, a brain-computer interface is at its heart a neurodiagnostic tool. Developments in one field are bound to spill over to the other, if only we let them.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



site design by shalatdesign | shalat.com