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Boffins in America say they have developed a portable, direct brain-to-computer interface - and there's good news for all you cyberpunks out there, as it requires no dangerous, risky plug into your skull.

The new tech, according to its developers, requires nothing more than ordinary electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes touching the scalp. A team of brain brainboxes led by José Contreras-Vidal say they have managed to determine, purely from EEG recordings, just what buttons test subjects were pressing on a keypad, mapping their hand movements in 3D to do so.

"Our results showed that electrical brain activity acquired from the scalp surface carries enough information to reconstruct continuous, unconstrained hand movements," says Contreras-Vidal.

The new kit has obvious implications for letting those who have lost limbs control prosthetic replacements, or allowing paraplegics to direct powered wheelchairs or other kit.

"It may eventually be possible for people with severe neuromuscular disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), stroke, or spinal cord injury, to regain control of complex tasks without needing to have electrodes implanted in their brains," comments Dr Jonathan Wolpaw, a government doctor who wasn't part of the development team.

Hard wiring into the brain, popular though it is in science fiction, is in reality bad news as it offers the likelihood of damage and a dangerous channel for infection through the brain's many protections. In general, medical boffins aren't even allowed to research such tech on humans unless hardwired electrodes have had to be inserted for other reasons. Hence the interest in methods which require no holes in the skull and protective membranes.

Kit like this would also, of course, be likely to spread outside medical uses if it could be made simple and affordable - which doesn't seem unlikely on the face of it. According to Contreras-Vidal and his team, most of the useful information in mapping hand movements came from just two electrodes of the 34 they placed on their test subjects, the ones on the primary sensorimotor cortex and the inferior parietal lobule.

One day, a relatively simple headset may allow a person to manipulate a cursor and enter text without benefit of such antique interfaces as mouse, keyboard, voice-control or touchscreen - so freeing up his or her hands for critical tasks such as drinking coffee or scratching.

Truly a brave new dawn is upon us. Contreras-Vidal and his colleagues' paper is to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience. ®

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