Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Aussies on the verge of bionics ‘Holy Grail’ ahead of human trials of brain machine interface technology

Australian researchers are leading the way with brain machine interface technology.
IMAGINE being able to communicate with a machine using nothing but your thoughts. 
That is the goal currently being pursued by a team of researchers and engineers at Melbourne University who are leading the way in the hugely significant field of developing brain machine interfaces.
In an effort to accomplish what has been likened to machine telepathy, they have developed a tiny biocompatible implant called a stentrode which gets implanted into a blood vessel next to the brain. The tiny implant records electric activity from a specific part of the brain and the information is then fed into a decoding algorithm which interprets the electric activity, or thoughts.
Dr Tom Oxley is leading the research and perhaps the only thing more impressive than the science involved is the story behind how he secured funding to embark on the project.
While on holiday in New York about four years ago, Dr Oxley sent a cold call e-mail to US Colonel Geoffrey Ling who at the time he had just become the director of the Pentagon’s science and research unit DARPA.
Much to the surprise of the trainee neurologist at Royal Melbourne Hospital he was quickly invited to the US Defence Department’s research agency and found himself pitching his bold idea to its top brass.
They agreed to give him $1 million to get started on his work.
“I don’t think any other body in the world would’ve funded it,” Dr Oxley tells “It was something that was so blue sky and out there.”
Dr Thomas Oxley has been working on this idea since 2007.
Dr Thomas Oxley has been working on this idea since 2007.Source:Supplied
There was some unfounded stigma that come attached with working with DARPA.
“There are a lot of cynical representations of DARPA about conducting black box evil work,” he says. “But my experience was that of an open, academically and creatively rich environment to pursue next generation research.”
It’s a misconception that extends to his work in brain machine interfaces.
Given the incredible nature of the science, many are quick to jump to lofty conclusions about its future capabilities including speculating about far flung military applications and mind control.
The technology is “an incredible step forward... but it’s a little bit overblown with what’s likely to happen here,” he says, referring to the more “science fiction” possibilities of the technology.
Dr Oxley stressed the implanted device is simply used to record information from the brain, not implanting information into it. “So when people start talking about mind control and things like that, actually this is a technology that is totally controlled by the user… it doesn’t actually work the other way around.”
His team is purely focused on the life altering benefits the technology can bring to the medical industry, primarily in the treatment of paralysis and epilepsy.
The stentrode is inserted into the blood vessel using a catheter.
The stentrode is inserted into the blood vessel using a catheter.Source:Supplied
From the DARPA funding, Dr Oxley and his team was able to use that to leverage Australian government funding.
Back in Melbourne Terence O’Brien, the head of Melbourne University’s Department of Medicine embraced the project with gusto — something which he referred to as the “Holy Grail for research in bionics”.
He introduced Dr Oxley to engineers Tony Burkitt and David Grayden who at the time were working on a bionic eye. In the following months postdoctoral researcher Nick Opie joined Dr Oxley as a lead researcher on the project.
Fast forward to 2016 and the team had successful results of animal trials published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
“It’s one thing to prove that we can record that type of data but the next stage is to demonstrate in a human that we can get the human user to control that signal in a way in which is useful,” Dr Oxley says.
Ultimately, the process hinges on the ability of the technology to translate the electric brain activity into useful information. To do so, they require a tailor-made decoding algorithm.
“There is a lot of work being done in this space but what’s lacking now is a kind of framework for people to continue to improve on these algorithms,” Dr Oxley says.
“We are modelling as best we can the decoding algorithms to make it work but really until it’s in (humans) it’s going to be challenging to improve on these systems.”
The group is aiming to carry out human trails in the near future, most likely next year, when the project will really begin to take shape.
“The beginning is probably going to be slow. We are aiming for basic control of a couple different directions on a computer screen with a cursor and then with that we hope to use that to manipulate mobility assist devices such as exoskeletons,” Dr Oxley says.
For those suffering from paralysis or severe spinal cord injuries, the technology offers “the capacity to get information out of their brain to modulate movement systems that will basically enable them to interact with their environment again.”
Another objective is to allow doctors treating a patient with uncontrollable seizures to have a constant data stream of what’s happening in their brain in order to predict and address the issue.
The team is keen to get the human patient trials under way and is certainly optimistic about the potential.
“I think what we’re seeing is the start of a whole new field,” Dr Oxley says.
Dr Tom Oxley and Dr Nick Opie, the lead researchers on the project. Picture: David Caird
Dr Tom Oxley and Dr Nick Opie, the lead researchers on the project. Picture: David CairdSource:News Limited


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