Devices & Robotics

On July 21, 2006, in Devices & Robotics
Implanting brain chips that attach to neurons to help read thoughts (such as the BrainGate chip we have reported on before) carries obvious risks. It appears possible to achieve somewhat similar results non-invasively (though at a much coarser grain) using an EEG skull cap to sense and interpret spikes in brainwave activity. Taking another non-invasive approach, Honda is helping develop a brain-machine interface (BMI) that uses MRI to read human thoughts and have them translated into appropriate responses by machines.

As these different BMIs and other biomonitoring devices proliferate, an alliance created among nearly two dozen medical device companies, including the major ones, to improve device compatibility is a very important step.

Other device news:

  • A laser breath-test device under development could replace blood tests, and could be usable by patients themselves. It will likely take 5-10 years to develop, however.


  • An automated CPR devicehas produced conflicting results in two studies. Given the benefits that would accrue if the device could be made to work well, one hopes its development will continue and that future studies will validate it. 


  • A nano-engineered sensor can “feel” the texture of objects and reveal the texture as an image. It could one day help surgeons “feel” tissue during minimally invasive surgery.

Non-invasive BCI

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A skull cap fitted with a couple dozen electrodes enables the wearer to compose messages — letter by letter — on a computer, just by thinking. The device was demonstrated at this year’s European Research and Innovation Exhibition in Paris, reports the AFP. The US-made “brain-computer interface” (BCI) digitizes brain signals picked up by the electrodes.

One 48-year old neurobiologist stricken with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) who can no longer even move his eyes is able to continue working using the BCI skull cap. He reportedly writes grant proposals and sends e-mails. He even wrote a message for the exhibition in Paris, saying: “I am a neuroscientist wHo couldn’t work without BCI. I am writing this with my EEG courtesy of the Wadsworth Center Brain-Computer Interface Research Program.”

It is only a matter of time, an expert told the AFP, before the same technology is used to operate motorized wheel chairs. “We can do already. But it is a complex problem, and for now it would be unsafe.”

Robot-Human Brain Interface

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Honda Motor Co. and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories have used MRI to read a human’s brain signals, which are then interpreted by a computer and translated into movement in a robot. Such a brain-machine interface (BMI) would (for example) enable disabled people to move robotic limb prostheses.

In a video demonstration, reports the AP’s Yuri Kageyama, “a person in the MRI machine made a fist, spread his fingers and then made a V-sign. Several seconds later, the robotic hand made the same movements.” The researchers hope to minaturize the MRI and computer for incorporation into “a cap that people can wear as they move about.”

Today’s most advanced BMI systems involve brain chip implants wired directly to neurons. Honda’s interest in the research also relates to developing intelligence for its humanoid robot, Asimo, as well as for future automobile technology.

Talking to Each Other

Source: Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2006.

In an effort to facilitate the transmission of data from home and remote patient monitoring devices to providers, 22 health care and electronics companies have joined to create a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that technologies manufactured by different device makers are compatible.

The Continua Health Alliance’s membership currently includes Cisco Systems, GE Healthcare, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, Medtronic, Motorola, Partners HealthCare System, Philips Electronics, and Samsung Electronics. Continua plans to publish guidelines that manufacturers can use in developing products designed to be compatible with devices made by other companies.

Technologies that meet Continua guidelines would feature an easily recognizable logo that consumers and providers alike could look for to ensure that home sensors and hospital information systems will work together. More firms are expected to join the Alliance, which plans to lobby regulators to promote certified technology use and to simplify consumer reimbursement for home monitoring.

Laser Breath Analyzer

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Human breath contains as many as 400 compounds, many of which reveal the presence or absence of disease. “You can measure in the breath what you measure in the blood,” a physician at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine told Dennis O’Brien of the Baltimore Sun. Collecting breath samples is easier and less painful than drawing blood.

Breath tests can reveal elevated ammonia levels (a sign of liver and kidney disease) and elevated ethane (a sign of vitamin deficiencies in children, as well as organ damage after transplants.) Tests to monitor asthma, intensive care, and heart transplant patients are already in use, and tests for breast cancer, lung cancer, and tuberculosis are under development, though they have a way to go, in part because the gas chromatographs that separate out individual compounds in the breath are expensive and slow — results can take days.

A consortium of several US colleges including Hopkins has received a five-year, US$15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to look for a to develop a relatively low-cost, laser-based device that family doctors and even patients themselves can use. The tool might also be used to detect airborne pollutants, gaseous emissions from soil, and even explosives and biological weapons. The device will be based on an existing technology called a quantum cascade laser, which has been used to study the composition of clouds and measure the ozone hole in the atmosphere.

The amount of laser light transmitted through an air mass at a specific wavelength reveals the levels of specific compounds in that mass. Commercially available quantum cascade lasers are still expensive, at between $8,000 and $24,000, but they have two major advantages: They work at room temperature, and they emit light in the mid-infrared range, which enables them to detect traces of ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases. “Eventually, you would be able to install them in a room somewhere and they’d function like a fire alarm system, putting out a signal if they detect something dangerous in the air,” one of the researchers told O’Brien.

Noting that “Not everyone is convinced that lasers will expand the horizons of breath testing,” O’Brien quotes the developer of an exisating test called Heartsbreath, an FDA-approved supplemental diagnostic tool for measuring alkane levels in the breath of heart transplant patients: “Lasers are always going to be the next big thing. But they never seem to come out as good as you want them to be.” But the new consortium is undaunted at the challenge.

CPR Machine Disappoints

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Defibrillators available in many public places work in only a fraction of heart attack patients, most of whom need sustained CPR. A two-year, five-city study in the US has concluded that Zoll Corporation’s AutoPulse automated CPR device resulted in lower survival rates compared with manual CPR, reports Julie Davidow in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. However, a second, five-year study from another city suggested that the device could be beneficial.

The two-year trial found no significant difference in initial survival, but survival to hospital discharge was only 5.8 percent in the automated group versus 9.9 percent in the control group that received standard CPR. The five-year study found higher rates of survival to hospital admission and to hospital discharge among patients who got mechanical CPR, and concluded that the AutoPulse “may be a useful addition to current cardiac arrest options, especially when used early on patients with cardiac arrest who do not respond immediately to a brief period of manual CPR, defibrillation or both.” There were differences in methodology that may account for the discrepancy in findings.

Haptics Advance

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A sensor that can assess the texture of objects just as a human fingertip can could one day help minimally invasive surgeons. The sensor is a film of metal and semiconducting nanoparticle layers which emit visible light when the film touches a surface and encounters any pressure or stress. The visible light is then detected by a camera. Pressed against a US one cent coin, the sensor revealed the wrinkles in President Lincoln’s clothing and the letters TY in liberty. The film is flexible and can be used repeatedly. A robotics expert commented that “The development of tactile sensors is one of the key technical challenges in advanced robotics and minimal access surgery.”


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