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June 23, 2011

Brain Implant Could Revive Paralyzed Limbs

Researchers at the University of Michigan take another step towards the Holy Grail of neurological technology--a device that would restore natural movement to the paralyzed.

The BioBolt, as the implant is called, can act as an interface between the human brain and an external device like a computer. It's not the first device to do so. But the BioBolt is distinguished from similar devices by its minimal invasiveness and low power usage. Whereas other neural implants require the skull to be open--rather drastically limiting the range of their usefulness--the BioBolt doesn't penetrate the cortex, and it can be completely covered by the patient's skin, crucial to fending off infection. (Still, points out MedGadget, this "minimally invasive" technology does require a wee-bit of skull drilling.)
Biobolt prototype placed on primate skull

The BioBolt brain implant could someday translate thoughts into movement

A brain implant developed at the University of Michigan uses the body's skin like a conductor to wirelessly transmit the brain's neural signals to control a computer, and may eventually be used to reactivate paralyzed limbs.

The implant is called the BioBolt, and unlike other neural interface technologies that establish a connection from the brain to an external device such as a computer, it's minimally invasive and low power.


BioBolt with the thin film of microcircuits that detects the brain’s activity.

The BioBolt, which Michigan researchers presented last week at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, is about the circumference of a dime, and has a small film of microcircuits clinging to its underside. When implanted in the skull, those microcircuits sit on the surface of the brain. There, they "act as microphones to 'listen' to the overall pattern of firing neurons," explains an announcement from Michigan, "and associate them with a specific command from the brain." The BioBolt amplifies those patterns, converts them into a digital signal, and transmits that through the skin to a computer. The final trick of using the skin as a conductor is what helps the BioBolt keep its power consumption low.

"The ultimate goal is to be able to reactivate paralyzed limbs," said Kensall Wise, one of the engineers on the project. That's years away, though. There are other potential uses of the technology in the meanwhile: with further research, it might be used to stem epileptic seizures, for instance, or it could be used to diagnose certain diseases, like Parkinson's.

Rendering of the BioBolt brain implant


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