Victims of paralysis can now use tech thanks to a new brain-computer interface

For those who are unable to use their arms or hands, a world of touch-based devices isn’t the most accessible place. Now though, thanks to new research, these individuals are no longer prevented from using touch-screen devices as researchers have developed technology that allows the control of tablets through a brain-computer interface (BCI).

The resulting study, published in PLOS One, shows how researchers rigged up multi-electrode arrays in the motor cortices of three patients of tetraplegia – a form of paralysis that results in partial or total loss of movement in all four limbs and torso. In doing so, the three subjects were able to control and use off-the-shelf Android tablets for a variety of functions.

Over the course of three days, the subjects learned to use the BCI and tablets for a range of purposes, including browsing the internet, sending messages, and playing a virtual piano on an app. One subject even used the tablet to order food shopping to her house.

The tablet read users’ inputs as a Bluetooth mouse, and so allowed the users a variety of functions including browsing the internet, typing on pop-up keyboards and playing with certain apps. The BCI only allowed users to click to interact with the tablet which, as the researchers admit, meant some functionality was missing as a result. While users couldn’t scroll web pages or resize windows due to needing either a two finger input or a mouse wheel, this is a big step in technological accessibility.

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Due to these limitations, the researchers suggest extra accessibility options for tablets would increase the ease of use in the future for such users. In addition, they suggest certain tweaks could be made to the Android OS keyboard, in order to increase ease of use for future BCI users.

While typing, the subjects were able to reach typing speeds of on average 24, 14 and 31 characters per second, due to Android OS’ predictive settings. Without this setting, typing speeds were much lower. On one day of testing, two of the subjects even began using the tablets to have conversations and chat with each other and research staff.

The development of a BCI that lets paralysis victims use their mind to control tablets is an important breakthrough, as it breaks down the barriers that stop normal people using technology. The use of these BCIs is noteworthy given the multielectrode arrays were not put in specifically for the test — the subjects already had them in between four months and nearly three years prior to the test — which shows they remain operational over long periods of time.

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