An Australian hospital has approved a world-first human trial of a brain implant to help people with advanced diseases of the nervous system*. It is hoped the implant will help these people communicate via* mind control.
Royal Melbourne Hospital in Victoria has granted ethics approval for the safety trial of the Melbourne-designed device. Ethics approval means the hospital has decided that the trial is important, will possibly help lots of people and the risk of harm to those involved is very low.
The trial will involve patients with a range of difficulties affecting movement or speech, such as advanced motor neurone disease, stroke or quadriplegia*. The first surgery is expected to happen in the middle of the year.
The implant is called the Stentrode. It is the size of a paperclip that will be threaded into the jugular vein in the neck and up into the main vein at the top of the head, where it will expand to lock into place.
It will sit over the motor cortex, which is the brain’s command centre for movement. It will receive brain signals from within the vein and without the need for risky open-brain surgery.
A lead from the Stentrode will run down the back of the skull and connect to a recorder implanted below the collarbone. It will communicate to a computer system mounted on the patient’s wheelchair via Bluetooth.
Professor Peter Mitchell and Dr Andrew Morokoff will perform the procedure.
Prof Mitchell is an interventional neuroradiologist, which means he uses X-rays, ultrasounds and other different types of scans and images. Dr Morokoff is a neurosurgeon, which means he operates to treat people with brain and nerve problems.
“I have enormous faith that this is going to work,” Prof Mitchell said. “If it does, there is no real limit to what it could potentially do.”
The research has been funded by the federal government and US military, and the study also involves the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and University of Melbourne.
Biomedical engineer Associate Professor Nick Opie, the co-inventor of the device, said after the Stentrode was implanted, and they determined which of its 16 electrodes* emitted the strongest signal, patients would undergo brain training in their own homes using eye-tracking software.
When patients look at a keyboard on a computer screen and think about an action — such as opening their left hand — this corresponds to a click of the computer mouse, allowing them to type.
Associate Prof Opie said over time the eye-tracking would be replaced with brain control actions, so participants could type a letter simply by thinking it.
“They might be happy to learn one click of the mouse so they can write letters to loved ones,” Associate Prof Opie said.
“But it’s not unrealistic for them to say they want to switch on lights. We can try that and add more switches. No-one has recorded these signals before, so in the long term it’s open to the imagination.”
MND* Australia acting director of research Janet Nash said this clinical trial — research her organisation had partly funded — gave great hope to the MND community for “helping them to maintain communication, independence and social inclusion”.
- nervous system: network of nerve cells in the body; includes the brain
- via: by way of or through
- quadriplegia: total or partial loss of use of legs, arms and torso
- electrodes: a conductor, sometimes a wire, used to make contact with a nonmetallic substance
- MND: Motor Neurone Disease, a group of diseases in which the nerve cells fail to work properly, affecting movement, speech, breathing and swallowing
- Where will the recorder be implanted in the body?
- What does a neurosurgeon do?
- Name one of the inventors.
- How many electrodes are in the Stentrode?
- Over time, what do the researchers hope that eye blinking will be replaced with?
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1. Brain Technology
This new brain implant could potentially be a life changer for people who are suffering from advanced diseases of the nervous system. There is a lot of technology that has gone into creating this new device and that is used in hospitals and research every day. Divide a page into a two-column table. In the left column, list each piece of technology mentioned in the Kids News article and in the right column, explain how it has helped the development of this brain implant and how it functions.
Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Digital Technologies, Ethical capabilities
Work with a partner and brainstorm what other ways and activities this new brain implant could do to help those that are unable to move or communicate.
Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative Thinking, Personal and Social
With a partner see if you can identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.
Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.
HAVE YOUR SAY: List some of the most important actions or tasks you think the Stentrode could be used to help people do.
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be shown until approved by editors.