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Brain-computer interface ushers in mind-control era

Xinhua | Updated: 2024-05-27 17:26

Wang Zhuang, a member of the neural engineering team at Tianjin University, is operating the additional "sixth finger" device. [Photo/Xinhua]

TIANJIN -- A stroke patient who donned a brain electrode cap was attempting to lift a bottle from the table using her fingers and an additional "sixth finger" device mounted on the wrist.

"Try again, focus your attention, and see if you can lift the bottle," said a neurological physician encouragingly.

With each attempt -- once, twice, thrice, -- the patient who had been unable to grip a pen witnessed the bottle slowly detach from the tabletop. The expression transformed from initial despair to incredulous astonishment, culminating in a moment as tears brimmed in her eyes.

Wang Zhuang, a third-year doctoral student and a member of the neural engineering team at Tianjin University, intently watched the patient and the "sixth finger" device on her hand, while meticulously recording every fluctuation in the data.

The team has crafted an innovative finger-worn device, leveraging non-invasive brain-computer interface (BCI) technology to harness the patient's brainwaves, enabling stroke patients to mentally "command" an extra digit.

Also, the device serves to revitalize the patients' compromised central and peripheral nervous systems, thereby facilitating the rehabilitation of hand motor functions.

The BCI, a technology heralding the future, is swiftly emerging as a focal point for global investment. Scientists and engineers are eager to integrate this pioneering tech into the realm of medical practice, embracing a new era of therapeutic possibilities.

"Stroke stands as a significant threat to the health of our nation's populace, often leaving patients with varying levels of physical impairment," said Wang.

"Our aspiration is to harness the power of technology to offer them enhanced opportunities for a life of completeness and fulfillment," he added.

In January, a Chinese clinical team from Xuanwu Hospital had implanted a wireless processor into the skull of a paralyzed man, and this significantly assisted him to recover his motor skills, including drinking a bottle of water on his own.

China has unveiled guidelines to support the technological innovation, industrial cultivation and safety governance of future industries, including the BCI industry.

According to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology's report on the development and application of BCI (2023), medical treatment stands as the predominant application domain for BCI technology in China.

Approximately 200 medical BCI enterprises operate in China, with a quarter of them pioneering in the field of implantable technology, while the remaining are dedicated to the development of non-implantable technologies, according to the report.

Mei Jie, a colleague of Wang, has uncovered additional potential within the BCI system. After six months of dedicated effort, he has successfully engineered a drone that can be controlled by brain signals.

"We have achieved for the first time the continuous brain control of a drone in four degrees of freedom," said Mei. "This technology holds expansive potential for applications in various fields, including the identification of distant targets, thorough environmental surveillance, and the monitoring of anomalies."

In pursuit of evaluating and fine-tuning the operational capabilities of the "brain-controlled drone," Mei dedicated an entire three-month period to conducting experiments at the outdoor research facility.

"Scientific research mirrors the process of cultivating crops that demands patience and persistence as the fruits of one's labor are not instantly harvested, but rather mature over an extended period of growth and fruition," said Mei.

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