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Converting Brain Signals into Action


Today,
8 million Americans are living with paralysis or have lost limbs. Many could
benefit from technologies that would help them carry out daily activities, but
high-tech prosthetics or other such devices are not always sufficient to meet
these needs, particularly for those who are paralyzed. To improve the quality
of life for these individuals, NCATS-supported investigators at Pitt are exploring
two different computerized chips that convert brain signals into an action
simply through the patient’s thinking about the action.


“The
problem has always been the control of the prosthetic by someone with limited
ability to move,” said Michael
Boninger, M.D. (link is
external)
, professor and chair of the Department of Physical
Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Pitt School of Medicine. Boninger and Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D. (link is external), a professor of
neurobiology at the medical school, have built a collaborative research program
to develop brain-computer interface devices that interpret the brain’s
still-intact command abilities and convey them to high-tech prosthetics and
assistive devices.


A team
of NCATS-supported researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a
micro-electrocorticography grid that may help paralyzed individuals move again.
The device, which is implanted in the brain’s movement-controlling motor cortex
(see image inset), helps this study participant practice simple computer tasks
using only her mind. A computer system interprets her brain’s electrical
impulses captured by the device then converts the signals into movement controls
in virtual environments. (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
Photo)


“There
is a really collaborative group of researchers at Pitt,” said Boninger.
“It’s a critical mass supported by the Clinical and
Translational Science Institute (link is external)
.” The
university’s CTSI is one of about 60 research institutions supported by NCATS’ Clinical
and Translational Science Awards
(CTSA) Program, which aims to move
scientific innovations into clinical practice. Currently, the research team is
working in parallel on two devices with unique features. One of these, the
micro-electrocorticography (ECoG) electrode grid, is placed beneath the skull
and on the surface of the brain’s movement-controlling motor cortex. A computer
system interprets the electrical impulses in the brain captured by the
micro-ECoG technology and then converts the signals into movement controls in
virtual environments. The group at Pitt developed the device as a smaller, less
invasive and higher-resolution version of an ECoG grid that is used to monitor
intractable epileptic seizures prior to surgery.


“We
wanted to accelerate the translation of this into clinical work, starting with
what was available and approved for clinical use,” recalled team member
and biomedical engineer Wei Wang, M.D., Ph.D., who is an assistant professor in
Boninger’s department and a co-principal investigator of the CTSI-funded pilot
research.


“Our
first phone call was to the CTSI,” said Boninger. Before each phase of
research into their micro-ECoG grid, the collaborators met with the regulatory
experts at the CTSI for guidance on the requirements for human research. Wang
added, “I think that without their help, it would have been a much tougher
route to take, and may not have happened.”


In
addition to specialized expertise, Boninger’s research team received two grants
from the CTSI to facilitate the project. First, a Translational Tool Pilot
Project award to co-principal investigators Wang and Elizabeth
Tyler-Kabara, M.D., Ph.D.
(link is external)
, assistant professor of neurosurgery and
bioengineering at Pitt, made it possible for the team to map out the brain
signals corresponding to specific hand movements. The team then worked with
patients who were undergoing epilepsy monitoring for a week and were willing to
have the experimental micro-ECoG grid implanted alongside their clinical ECoG
grid. Using only their minds via the brain interface device, the volunteers
practiced computer-screen tasks and a video game.


Building
upon this work, Wang received a training grant from the CTSI’s Clinical
Research Scholars Program. This grant enabled continued research funding and
formal mentorship support from Boninger and Schwartz as well as educational
opportunities in various aspects of clinical and translational research.
Leveraging funding from NIH’s National Institute for Neurological Disorders and
Stroke, Schwartz and Pitt bioengineer Jennifer Collinger are working with Wang
to test the micro-ECoG technology with people who have tetraplegia, or
paralysis in all four limbs. In this study, volunteers will have more time to
master use of the implanted brain interface device, spending 25 hours per week
for nearly a month testing their control of computer cursors and assistive
devices.


The
group also is developing a second brain-interface technology, an intracortical
microarray. This device enables the user to control movement with thoughts, but
with a higher resolution and potentially greater control than the micro-ECoG
because the tiny chip’s 100 miniscule, spike-like electrode probes descend into
the surface of the motor cortex. The probes read the signals coming from
individual neurons. Because the arrays are embedded into the brain, this
interface device could cause more scar tissue than the micro-ECoG. With support
from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Schwartz is leading
research using the array in animals paired with a dexterous prosthetic arm
engineered at Johns Hopkins University.


With
coaching from CTSI and other university experts, the team received approval
from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test the intracortical array in
humans. Now supported by the U.S. Department of Defense, Schwartz is continuing
his animal model work, and Boninger is leading its testing in volunteers with
tetraplegia.


“Our
work is a great example of translational research that accomplishes things that
we’re not going to get from a pill,” Boninger said. “Support of
bioengineering research is an absolutely critical part of the CTSI
program.”


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