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A US company has carried out trials on a brain implant which offers quadriplegics the possibility of controlling a computer by mind-power alone. Although the first volunteer to use the Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems' BrainGate has so far been able only to move an on-screen cursor, play the game Pong and transmit simple instructions to a robotic arm, the developers hope that in the future, paralysis will not be an obstacle to surfing the web, sending email and generally enjoying the PC experience.

The Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems' blurb explains:

The BrainGate™ System is based on Cyberkinetics' platform technology to sense, transmit, analyze and apply the language of neurons. The System consists of a sensor that is implanted on the motor cortex of the brain and a device that analyzes brain signals. The principle of operation behind the BrainGate™ System is that with intact brain function, brain signals are generated even though they are not sent to the arms, hands and legs. The signals are interpreted and translated into cursor movements, offering the user an alternate "BrainGate™ pathway" to control a computer with thought, just as individuals who have the ability to move their hands use a mouse.

In practical terms, a surgeon drills a hole in the subject's skull and places a small implant containing 100 electrode sensors directly on the brain surface. The first volunteer to undergo the BrainGate procedure was Matt Nagle of Boston - a knife attack victim paralysed for over three years. He subsequently said of the robotic arm experience: "I was using my thoughts. When I wanted it to go left, it would go left, and, when I wanted it to go right, it would go right," the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Following this success, the Food and Drug Administration has authorised Cyberkinetics to try out the system on four further volunteers. Cyberkinetics founder, Nicholas Hatsopoulos, admitted that the surgical procedure carried some risk of infection or brain damage, and praised the volunteers thus: "We're doing it in the safest and best way we know how. These people who participate deserve a lot of credit. They're pioneers."

Cyberkinetics hopes that - all being well - it will have FDA approval to market BrainGate by 2007. ®

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