When Phil O’Keefe wants to open a document or click a link on his computer screen, he can think about tapping his left ankle.
That brain activity is collected by sensors implanted in a blood vessel in Mr. O’Keefe’s brain and relayed to a computer through devices in his chest. The signals are converted to a mouse click or zoom-in on his screen with the help of machine-learning software.
Mr. O’Keefe, 60 years old, is one of a small number of patients with mobility issues testing this new system, part of a wave of brain-sensing technology that aims to allow people immobilized by disease or injury to handle daily tasks requiring movement. In 2015, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative condition commonly known as ALS.
Companies and academic labs around the world are racing to build next-generation devices and artificial intelligence that can monitor and decode brain activity. With as many as 500,000 people a year world-wide suffering spinal-cord injuries and strokes becoming more common among younger patients because of Covid-19, the need is huge, neuroscientists said.
Success hinges on better understanding normal brain function and being able to build durable, accurate and safe devices that work outside research settings. Companies including Silicon Valley startup Synchron Inc., which developed the sensor in Mr. O’Keefe’s brain, are working on technology to access the brain while limiting the potential for damage.