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Tech Please: How can China's 'smartbrains' help paralysis patients?


 , Updated 20:26, 15-Apr-2024

Editor's note: "Tech Please!" takes a brief look at all things science and technology in China, revealing trends you won't hear about anywhere else, from cutting-edge developments to the bizarre and whimsical in the world's most exciting tech market.

The Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), a technology that lies at the heart of the sensation caused by a brain implant introduced by Elon Musk's Neuralink, has witnessed a series of groundbreaking events since the beginning of this year.

In late March, Neuralink livestreamed a video featuring its first paraplegic patient. This individual was able to play chess and a video game using just his mind after being implanted with a device in January.

But Neuralink is not alone in doing this kind of research. A team of Chinese developers from Tsinghua University, in collaboration with surgical teams from two hospitals in Beijing, has announced the successful recovery of two patients.

The surgery

The first patient to undergo the brain implant surgery was a tetraplegic patient nicknamed Laoyang. He had lost all motion functions and sensory abilities from the neck down after a car accident 14 years ago.

Laoyang went through the surgery in October last year and was only in hospital for 10 days before he was released to rest and recover at home. He is now able to recover some limb motions after three months of recovery.

"The standardization of the surgical procedure is brand new because it has not been done before," said Zhao Guoguang, the leading neurosurgeon for Laoyang's surgery and also the principal of the Capital Medical University Xuanwu Hospital.

Zhao's team at Xuanwu Hospital was the first to conduct such surgery.

"Given that this is an exploratory case, the first thing to consider is how to install the device properly," he said.

"This requires communication with the R&D team and the equipment manufacturing team to ensure the safety of the surgery," he added.

The device: NEO vs. 'Telepathy'

The implantable device, named Neural Electronic Opportunity (NEO), was developed by a group of scientists from Tsinghua University. It consists of an internal part the size of two coins implanted on the patient's scalp and an external part as the power link to receive neural signals before transmitting them to a computer or cell phone.

"This system's main advantage lies in its minimally invasive wireless approach," said Hong Bo, the leading developer of NEO and a professor from Tsinghua's School of Medicine.

NEO's electrodes are embedded between the skull and the dura mater, a thick external membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

"In this way, it can protect the structure of the brain, which prevents damage to our brain cells and eliminates inflammatory reactions," Hong said.

As for Neuralink's "Telepathy," which adopts a full-invasive design, it "will reach richer brain signals and help patients to do more things," said Hong. But it bears risks with larger damage.

"Its complicated system may require longer recovery time and more technical support," Hong added.

Future of BCI

The second NEO implantation was conducted at Beijing Tiantan Hospital under Shan Yongzhi's team in December.

The patient, who's in his thirties and suffered from a high-level spinal cord injury, spent only one month recovering hand motion with the assistance of an air-filled glove and was able to control the computer cursor, all driven by brain waves.

"I think our system can help him regain hope and strength in life," said Hong.

The future application of BCI, particularly for devices like NEO, can be combined with other treatment and rehabilitation devices to address motion and cognitive impairments and even more complex mental health issues, according to Hong.

"This would require cooperation between us and clinical doctors to expand the clinical application of this system to a larger scope," he said.

And when envisioning a future society with BCI, Zhao uses a quote from Miguel Nicolelis, the father of such science.

"If someone, for example, who had good hand movement before, was in the functional area, singing solo, singing as the main character, but then it's like his voice disappeared. Now, through a brain-computer interface, we hope that people can join in the chorus and continue the music, allowing him to complete it."

Scriptwriter and host: Zhao Chenchen

Copy editor: John Goodrich

Cameraman: Zheng Hao

Post-production: Zhao Chenchen, with AI-assisted music production

Colorist: Qi Jianqiang

Cover image designer: Yin Yating, with AI-generated background

Producer: Cao Qingqing

Chief editors: Wen Yaru, Wu Gang

Executive producer: Zhang Shilei

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