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Thoughts and Dreams

Despite the progress to date, scientists don’t yet know whether BCI and FES devices will ever come together to restore precise natural movement to paralyzed human limbs. For instance, even given a perfect cortical signal, FES researchers might be unable to make full use of it. Nicolelis warns that, “It’s a complex problem to coordinate the muscles to produce the kind of spatial-temporal patterns you need.”

And yet there is a reserved consensus among FES experts that many of the same technological innovations that are driving BCI research, in particular better microelectronics and improved electrodes, are also paving the way for an increase in the speed of FES development. As Peckham puts it, “I think you could make a pretty good argument that we’re just getting the tools available now to make substantial clinical impacts.”

Today, spinal cord injury is still a condition without a cure. Yet every paralysis victim dreams one will happen soon enough to make a difference in his lifetime. Where will the cure come from? The biomedical engineering approach expressed in Freehand has already achieved what millions spent on drug research and recent scientific progress in regrowing nerve cells haven’t yet: a degree of normality in the lives of quadriplegics such as Jatich. Now the merger of neuroprosthetics with brain-computer interfaces, while still in the research-prototype stage, promises another stride toward helping people whose bodies are immobile, but in whose minds hope steps lively.

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