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In the wake of BrainGate, Brown U. debuts wireless brain sensor

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Brain-computer interfaces at Brown University have taken another step forward. And the key this time is to go wireless and rechargeable.

This newest brain sensor is not that far along, by any means. It's only gotten through testing in a handful of animals. But those trials have gone like gangbusters, with the implant working continuously for over a year. Brown sees the advance as a next-generation tool to help paralyzed patients move objects with their thoughts, minus being tethered to any connecting wires.

Brown University engineering professor Arto Nurmikko told FierceMedicalDevices via email that the team anticipates its new wireless device will "be in due course transitioned to the medical device industry"--that means some sort of eventual licensing deal or spinoff based on the technology.

But first?

"Many issues, including key regulatory matters, need to be resolved," Nurmikko told us. Once that happens, he expects the device to advance to be part of "medically important" preclinical research within the next two years. Aiding that journey: possible medical device development partners.

A team led by Nurmikko came up with the wireless brain sensor, making it both implantable and rechargeable and it generated some promising results in three pigs and three rhesus macaque monkeys. For details, read the Journal of Neural Engineering, which outlines the work by folks including lead author David Borton, a Brown graduate now based at Ecole Polytechnique Federale Lausanne in Switzerland.

According to Brown (where I once worked in their media relations office), the sensor successfully relays signals from up to 100 neurons, all in real-time broadband. It uses less than 100 milliwatts of power, and runs for more than 6 hours after a two-hour charge. A tiny chip full of electrodes is implanted on the cortex, and a small device houses components including signal processing circuits and a lithium ion battery.

All of this work is super early-stage, but it helps broaden the potential for brain-computer interfaces, where people who are paralyzed could theoretically rely on such an implant to use their thoughts to control devices such as artificial limbs. Borton explained in a statement that the new chip hits a number of milestones, particularly that it is the first "fully implanted neural interface microsystem" to work wirelessly for more than a year in tests with large animals.

Keep in mind the researchers at Brown and elsewhere developed this with BrainGate very much in mind. BrainGate, a chip developed by Brown and VA neuroscientist John Donoghue, is the subject of an ongoing trial handled by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Last year, the chip helped a patient who couldn't move her arms or legs make a robotic arm pick up and move various objects--a huge advance itself, though connecting wires helped.

-- Mark Hollmer (email | Twitter)