About the Utrecht NeuroProsthesis
Tens of thousands of people suffer from some form of paralysis in the Netherlands alone. In extreme cases all communication between the brain and the primary muscles of the body is lost resulting in locked-in syndrome (LIS), which leaves a person unable to make their wishes known to the outside world.
At the Brain Center Rudolf Magnus of the University Medical Center Utrecht research is being done to allow people suffering from LIS to communicate via a computer. A method has been developed to directly connect a person’s brain to a computer. By making use of a ‘neuro-prosthesis’ a person can make a computer mouse click or control an on/off switch by thinking about certain things. The performance of the system is currently being tested and will become clear once several people have been able to extensively work the device.
The device consists of two parts: a component in the body and a component outside the body. The component inside the body is made up of four small strips of electrodes that are placed on the surface of the brain via small drill holes in the skull. The electrode strips are attached to thin wires that are tunneled under the skin to a small amplifier and transmitter. The amplifier/transmitter is the size of a pacemaker and is placed under the skin in the chest. It contains a battery that is sufficient to undergo testing for the duration of the 1 year study. The battery cannot be replaced without removing the transmitter because the transmitter is encapsulated within a hermetic case. Once the battery is empty the entire transmitter and case can be replaced during a small operation. The battery life of the new transmitter is expected to be 3 to 5 years. The battery of the replacement transmitter has a longer life because the testing that needs to be performed on the original transmitter drains more power than is needed for everyday BCI use.
The component outside the body consists of an antenna, a receiver, and a computer. The antenna is worn on the chest near the transmitter. For safety reasons the signal sent out by the transmitter under the skin can only be received when the antenna is in close proximity. The antenna is designed to fit in a shirt breast pocket. It can also be attached with a hypoallergenic bandage, a harness, or with various other methods. Thins wires attach the antenna to the receiver which is connected with a larger wire to the computer. Is this way the brain signals are sent from the transmitter to the computer where they are converted into ‘click’ commands. Any assistive technology devices that is designed to be controlled by an external button can then be controlled by the clicks generated by the UNP computer. By coupling the UNP to a commercially available assistive communication device, it is expected that the UNP user will be able to communicate directly with their brain signals without any muscle movement. Due to safety concerns the UNP can only be used for communication or possible other uses that are judged to be safe by the research team.
More details of how the UNP works are illustrated and explained in the following short film.