May 20, 2017 - The human brain is one of the final frontiers for technological innovation. Imagine a future where paralysis resulting from spinal cord injuries is only a temporary obstacle, rather than a permanent state. Imagine artificial limbs that can send the user feedback about how hot or cold their cup of coffee is, or just how tightly they are holding their loved one’s hand. Imagine a future where temporary implants can help an individual recover from a stroke or manage other debilitating neurological conditions. Now, all of these seemingly impossible medical applications of new technology stand to be within reach for bi-directional brain-computer interfaces.
ARM and the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) have signed an agreement whereby the CSNE will develop a unique ‘brain-implantable’ system-on-a-chip (SoC) for bi-directional brain-computer interfaces (BBCI) aimed at solving neurodegenerative disorders. Based at the University of Washington, the CSNE is a National Science Foundation engineering research center working to develop innovative ways to connect a deep computational understanding of how the brain adapts and processes information with the design of implantable devices.3
The project: addressing chronic health issues through brain-computer interfaces
The research project will enable us to begin solving real world health problems with brain-implantable chips aimed at tackling a raft of debilitating neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even paralysis. The long-term goal is to assist people affected by neurological conditions, by engineering neurotechnology that will help the body heal, feel and move again.
The new SoC will play a vital role in decoding the complex signals formed within the brain, digitizing them so they can be processed and acted upon, with the end result of controlling the body’s muscle functions – which is the key to tackling neurodegenerative disease.
Brain-implantable chips need to be very small, highly power-efficient and capable. Our industry-proven ARM Cortex-M0 processor, the smallest ARM processor available, will contribute to this very important area of research by being an integral part of the CSNE’s brain-implantable SoC.
The project is a natural fit for ARM and our vision of improving lives around the globe by shaping a smarter, happier and healthier world with technology. Our ongoing goal of increasing the power-efficiency of ARM products aligns with CSNE’s advanced research work in developing low-power, efficient and implantable neural devices for medical applications.
Improving quality of life for those impacted by paralysis and other neurological disorders
The BBCI chip is being designed to address stroke, spinal cord injury and other neurological conditions. People who have experienced a stroke or spinal cord injury often have health issues, such as paralysis, which can impact their quality of life by preventing them from moving parts of their body, for example, a hand or an arm.
The research project will design a SoC which is able to take neural signals from the brain that represent movements the person with paralysis wants to make; before directing those signals to a stimulator implanted in the spinal cord itself. This will enable the person to make the desired movements when they want to, effectively overcoming their paralysis. In the future, the device will also be able to send information in the reverse direction, allowing the person to once again feel what their hand is touching.
Research is also demonstrating that use of such a system may eventually help to coax brain neurons to rewire in ways that help the brain recover from stroke. The result of this BBCI collaboration is development of neural devices that will benefit people by restoring sensation, limb function and augmenting the brain’s natural healing capabilities.
The brain and beyond
Dr. Scott Ransom, the CSNE’s Director of Industry Relations and Innovation, shared his thoughts about the collaboration:
“We are very excited to be collaborating with a company like ARM. ARM’s strong expertise in power-efficient microprocessors compliments the CSNE’s work in computational neuroscience and brain-computer interfacing, and we expect the partnership to lead to advances in not only medical technology but other applications as well, such as consumer electronics.”
As it matures, this technology, when combined with the human brain - one of the most critical centers of the human body - could be used to solve myriad challenges in health care and beyond.