Brain-computer interface (BCI) developments are closing the gap that differentiates humans from computing machines. As an energy-harvesting computer system, our bodies come equipped with purpose-built scanners, input devices, task-specific peripherals, vast local storage capacity, and a fully-integrated central processing unit. As with computers, our connections can loosen or break and our components can fail. When the interface between our brain and legs fails due to spinal cord damage, however, restoring the ability to walk isn’t as simple as replacing a cable when a printer stops receiving print jobs. Swapping in new parts works to some extent with humans using transplants. However, while you can replace a computer motherboard and CPU and re-build the machine, that’s about where the metaphor ends for humans. So far.

Brain-computer interfaces work with some paralyzed patients by implanting a signaling device in the brain’s motor cortex region. The implant receives and transmits signals from the brain to a computer where the impulses convert to specific actions such as selecting commands and letters on a tablet to communicate. One major drawback with current implant technology is that it requires open brain surgery to place the devices. Synchron has developed the Stentrode, an endovascular neural interface that is implanted in the jugular vein. The video that accompanies this post depicts the route the stent travels within the jugular vein and the process by which the interface establishes a connection with the motor cortex. Signals captured by the implant transmit to a wireless antenna implanted in the patient’s chest which re-transmits the signals to an external receiver. As a result, the process does not require invasive surgery.

Synchro is getting ready to run clinical trial pilots to evaluate Stentrode technology. The company also is working on an operating system and application software patients can use to interact with various assistive technologies. We’ve written previously about brain implants that enable the sense of touch for robotic arms, brain-spinal implants that help monkeys walk again, and an implant that enables people with total paralysis to control a computer mouse. Each of the previous studies required brain surgery. Achieving the same results with a device implanted via a stent would be a major advance in rebuilding human capabilities.