Medical brain-computer interface technology advancing in China

(Xinhua) 10:08, April 01, 2024

BEIJING, March 31 (Xinhua) -- The first thing Wu Xiaotian (pseudonym) does every day is adjust the parameters of his brain pacemaker through a mobile app. He then activates a controller next to his chest and, with a beep from the device, he feels revitalized, as though he has regained control over his body.

Wu, who was born in the 1990s, has been battling depression for over a decade. After various treatments had little effect, he participated in a clinical research program utilizing a brain-computer interface at Ruijin Hospital, which is affiliated with the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, and underwent surgery in 2022 after strict ethical screening.

Wu now carries a brain pacemaker roughly the size of two coins in his chest. The pacemaker is linked to electrodes implanted in areas of his brain that control emotion. The electrodes, which each have eight stimulation points, discharge when Wu activates an external switch, stimulating specific brain regions to improve his mood.

Through the mobile app, Wu can alternate between work and rest modes tailored to provide different stimuli. By utilizing these modes, he can invigorate himself during the day and relax at night.

Wu says he was reborn with the help of brain-computer interface technology. "The day of the surgery was my second birthday," he said.

Sun Bomin, who works at Ruijin Hospital, explained that mental disorders such as depression are mainly caused by the dysfunction of nerve circuits in the brain, and that brain-computer interface technology can provide patients with neuroregulatory treatment.

The clinical research program has reported a depression symptom improvement rate of over 60 percent among 23 participating patients following surgery.

Brain-computer interface technology has also brought new hope to the field of neural rehabilitation.

A team led by professor Hong Bo at Tsinghua University, in collaboration with a team at Beijing Tiantan Hospital, in December implanted a Neural Electronic Opportunity (NEO) device in a patient who had a severe spinal injury in a car accident. Their work was successful in enabling the patient to use his mind to control the movement of a cursor across a screen.

Another patient, a man who has been quadriplegic for 14 years, underwent NEO implant surgery at Xuanwu Hospital last October. He can now grasp a bottle of water independently using an air-filled glove driven by brain waves, reporting a grasping accuracy rate of over 90 percent.

Blending biological and machine intelligence, brain-computer interface technology is regarded as a significant advancement in health care.

According to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology's report on the development and application of brain-computer interface technology (2023), medical treatment is the main application field of brain-computer interface technology in China.

Zhao Guoguang, a professor at Xuanwu Hospital, explained that the technology processes algorithms and analyzes signals to translate human thoughts into machine-recognizable instructions, allowing patients to control external devices such as pneumatic hands and mechanical arms, realizing brain-computer connection.

The technology's applications are categorized as invasive, involving direct brain signal extraction through implanted electrodes, and non-invasive, utilizing wearable detection equipment to collect brain signals. Invasive means the technology comes with high risks and costs, while non-invasive means it is challenged by weak and unstable signals.

According to the report, there are nearly 200 medical brain-computer interface enterprises in China, with 25 percent of those enterprises working with implantable technology and 75 percent working with non-implantable technology.

China in January released guidelines to support the technological innovation, industrial cultivation and safety governance of future industries, including the brain-computer interface industry.

While advancements in brain-computer interface technology are accelerating globally, challenges persist, including technical complexities, limited patient participation in clinical trials, and strict ethical requirements.

Luo Minmin, co-director of the Chinese Institute for Brain Research, Beijing, said that although brain-computer interface technology has bright application prospects, it is currently in its clinical trial stage and has not yet delivered market-oriented products.

The technology still needs to see breakthroughs in multiple fields. If related technology encounters obstacles, practical application will be challenging. Therefore, it is crucial that synergistic progress is achieved in brain science, clinical medicine and engineering related to the development of new electrodes and chips, Luo said.

Many patients are hesitant to participate in brain-computer interface clinical trials due to concerns over surgical risks and potential sequelae, Hong said, noting that patients can only be persuaded to participate in the trials when offered a semi-invasive compromise solution.

That means that non-invasive and semi-invasive approaches could be the logical technical routes to advance the industrialization of brain-computer interface technology in the country, Hong said.

Concerns have also been expressed over the privacy and safety of patients, and over the ethics of the emerging technology. China in February adopted ethical guidelines for brain-computer interface research -- the first guidelines of their kind in the country -- stipulating that frontier technology should be used principally for therapeutic purposes.

The development of a secure data-processing scheme is also necessary to protect patients' electrical brain activity data and other personal information, said Liu Shuang, deputy dean of the Medical School of Tianjin University. 

(Web editor: Zhong Wenxing, Liang Jun)


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