Brain-computer interface zooms ahead in helping paralysis patient drive again

Nearly a decade after a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, Florida resident German Aldana Zuniga got back behind the wheel—thanks to a microchip implanted in his brain.

Using only his thoughts to control the throttle, Zuniga drove several laps in a NASCAR Cup racecar on a track outside Fountain, Colorado, this week, according to a report by CBS Denver. The brain-computer interface that helped him hit the road was developed by a team of physicians, researchers and engineers.

The team was led by neurosurgeon Scott Falci, M.D., who heads up the Falci Institute for Spinal Cord Injuries at Colorado’s Swedish Medical Center and also founded Falci Adaptive Motorsports in 2012 to help people with mobility impairments drive again.

Wednesday’s joyride marked Zuniga’s first time driving since the 2013 car crash that left him with no mobility below the waist and limited use of his hands and arms.

The team spent over a year adapting the brain-computer interface to read Zuniga’s thoughts. A microchip electrode placed on his brain communicates with a computer in the car to control the engine.

“The electrical changes get picked up on that electrode, travel down a cable underneath his skin to a little computer processor,” Falci told CBS Denver. “When the computer recognizes that particular fingerprint, it knows to send the signal to the computer in our racecar, and that computer knows to send it to the throttle and to actuate the throttle.”

Meanwhile, a specialized helmet picks up Zuniga’s head movements to steer the car, and he can exhale into or inhale from an attached tube to help control the accelerator and brakes.

While it may seem like Falci and his team skipped a few key mobility milestones between total paralysis and zooming a racecar around a track, the initiative was developed largely to demonstrate the ultimate potential of brain-computer interfaces—rather than assembling a new team of NASCAR drivers, Falci said.

“We can use this potentially for driving an electric wheelchair, a golf cart, [to] control a robotic arm, control an exoskeleton device, control an implanted medical device,” he explained. “Once we develop that science, that science can be used for all types of systems.”

Zuniga, who described his mind-controlled driving experiment as “just incredible,” shares Falci’s vision of applying the technology to a variety of everyday tasks for mobility-impaired individuals, including helping them one day walk again.

“Technology is advancing, so we have to help do our part in it and make it become available for everyone,” he told CBS Denver.

Falci’s system joins a handful of others that have found success in translating thoughts into actions in just the last year or two, from an FDA-approved wireless brace that improves hand function in stroke patients to a bionic arm that restores function and feeling in amputees.

Most recently, Synchron unveiled study results showing that its stent-like Stentrode system remained safely in place and functional one year after the minimally invasive implant procedure. The device has so far been implanted in a handful of patients who are paralyzed due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and who can use the system to send text messages and emails, shop and bank online and even send tweets, all using only their thoughts—plus an eye-tracking device to move the cursor.