Big improvements to brain-computer interface

SAN DIEGO – A computer chip, small enough to fit into the palm of your hand is bringing new hope for people with damaged spinal cords and other nervous system injuries and the technology is being developed right here at home.

San Diego State University engineers say they are one step closer to testing these devices out on humans.

The brain can still send signals to different parts of the body but those messages can easily get lost after suffering from a severe injury.  Now, SDSU engineers are working on a way around it.

Over the last five years, more than a dozen graduate students from SDSU have been involved in a groundbreaking new project focused on restoring motion in people with damaged spinal cords.

“The number of people suffering from stroke or spinal cord injury is increasing and we have in one estimate about four million people suffering from such diseases and these are chronic diseases. Once you have them you lose functionality for the rest of your life,” said Sam Kassegne, professor of Mechanical Engineering at SDSU.

Together with the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers have been working on a brain-computer interface.  The small chip basically is implanted into the brain, recording and transmitting signals through electrodes.  The technology bypasses the damage and restores movement.

“I see the excitement mainly from the students, they know what they are doing actually has a huge impact and to be in a position where some of the work that we do has a big impact in human health conditions, it’s a very satisfying line of work,” said Kassegne.

The electrodes are manufactured at SDSU.  The process involves patterning a liquid polymer into the correct shape, then heating it to 1000 degrees Celsius, once the electrodes are cooked and cooled, they are incorporated into chips that read and transmit signals from the brain and to the nerves.

“It’s a lot of fun and it’s so much fun getting younger students involved because you get to tell them they will be part of something that will turn into much bigger and change people’s lives,” said student, Mieko Hirabayasha.

The $20 million project is being funded by the national science foundation.  It hoped the technology is more durable, lasts longer in the body and transmits clearer, stronger signals.

“What I want to do is make a probe that we can put into an animal and then understand the fundamentals behind it so we can make better technology that is invasive for humans,” she said.

Engineers say they have enough data to take their research to the next level.

They expect to start human trials in the next 18 months.

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