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Cambridge tech giant ARM aims to help restore limb movement with brain implants

ARM computer chips are found in over half the worlds mobile devices. Picture by Matej Moderc.
ARM computer chips are found in over half the worlds mobile devices. Picture by Matej Moderc.

Company teams up with American research centre for 'brain-computer interface' work

It could help those with debilitating conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s – and even enable those with paralysis to move again.

Cambridge technology giant ARM is working with an American engineering research centre to develop brain-implantable chips to tackle neurodegenerative diseases and help people who have suffered from a stroke or spinal cord injury.

The company has signed an agreement with the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), based at the University of Washington, which wants to use its understanding of how the brain processes information to design implantable devices that can restore sensation and limb function, and even augment the brain’s natural healing power.

The aim of the 10-year project is to design a system-on-a-chip (SoC) for bi-directional brain-computer interfaces (BBCI). The implant will be designed to take neural signals representing movements that a person with a neurological condition or paralysis wants to make and direct them to a stimulator implanted in the spinal cord, enabling those movements to be carried out.

Further advances could enable the system to send information in the other direction, allowing the person to feel what their hand is touching, for example.

The approach could be used to enable those with artificial limbs to get feedback from them – so they could feel how tightly they are holding a loved one’s hand or how hot their cup of coffee is, for example.

And temporary implants could help individuals recover from strokes.

Dr Scott Ransom, the CSNE’s director of industry relations and innovation, said: “We are very excited to be collaborating with a company like ARM.

“ARM’s strong expertise in power-efficient microprocessors complements 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.”

The system will decode signals in the brain and digitise them so they can be processed. But brain-implantable chips need to be very small and capable. Among the challenges is the power efficiency required and the heat generated.

ARM said: “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.”

It is thought use of such a system could even help to coax brain neurons to rewire in ways that will help the brain recover from stroke.

While the concept sounds like science fiction, there have been some steps towards it already.

In March, researchers, including a team at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, became the first to restore brain-controlled hand and arm motion in a person with complete paralysis.

Bill Kochevar, who was injured in a cycling accident, used thoughts to send messages from implants in his brain to 36 electrodes in his arm and hand, enabling him to feed himself.

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