DARPA homes in on paper clip-sized implant for mind-controlled prosthetics

Australian scientists are developing a tiny implant that transmits brain signals and could potentially be used in mind-controlled prosthetics. -- Courtesy of University of Melbourne

Mind-controlled prosthetics are all the rage in med tech, and now, Australian scientists are taking the technology a step further. Scientists in a project funded by the U.S. military are developing a device the size of a paper clip that can transmit brain signals, potentially paving the way for new discoveries in the field.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne are working on a "stentrode" that is implanted in the brain through blood vessels. The device uses a network of small electrodes to pick up on signals from the brain and convert them to electrical commands, scientists said in a recent study published in Nature Biotechnology.

Eventually, the technology could help paralyzed patients operate a bionic limb or a wheelchair. "The big breakthrough is that we now have a minimally invasive brain-computer interface device which is potentially practical for long-term use," said Terry O'Brien, head of medicine at the Department of Medicine and Neurology at the University of Melbourne, as quoted by Reuters.

Scientists have already tested the technology in sheep. Now the team wants to see if their findings apply in humans. Researchers are planning on kicking off a human trial of the device in 2017 in Australia, scientists said in a statement.

The technology could offer an advantage over current methods for scanning brain signals. The standard technique involves complicated open-brain surgery and becomes less effective over several months, which often means that it's rarely used, O'Brien told Reuters.

The device was developed under DARPA's Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program, which the agency launched in 2010. The program is aiming to uncover new prosthetic technology that could improve outcomes for veterans with brain injury or limb loss.

"By reducing the need for invasive surgery, the stentrode may pave the way for more practical implementations of those kinds of life-changing applications of brain-machine interfaces," Doug Weber, program manager for RE-NET, said in a statement.

- here's the statement
- get the study abstract
- read the Reuters story