Brain implants on the cusp of reality help patients immobilized by ALS, strokes or spinal cord injuries

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Phil O'Keefe is the second person to undergo the Stentrode implant and is now able to use his thoughts to work a computer. Credit: David Caird

[B]rain activity is collected by sensors implanted in a blood vessel in [Phil] O’Keefe’s brain and relayed to a computer through devices in his chest. The signals are converted to a mouse click or zoom-in on his screen with the help of machine-learning software.

Mr. O’Keefe, 60 years old, is one of a small number of patients with mobility issues testing [Synchron’s] new system, part of a wave of brain-sensing technology that aims to allow people immobilized by disease or injury to handle daily tasks requiring movement. In 2015, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative condition commonly known as ALS.

Companies and academic labs around the world are racing to build next-generation devices and artificial intelligence that can monitor and decode brain activity.

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Mr. O’Keefe, who lives near Melbourne, had the Stentrode device implanted in April. Once the wound in his chest healed, the training began.

The mouse-click action was calibrated to his left ankle because that sent the strongest signal from his brain to the device, he said. He uses separate eye-tracking technology to move the cursor. During the first training session, creating and sending an email took him four hours. Now he says he can do that in minutes.

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