By Liam Drew
Implants are becoming more sophisticated — and are attracting commercial interest.
James Johnson hopes to drive a car again one day. If he does, he will do it using only his thoughts.
In March 2017, Johnson broke his neck in a go-carting accident, leaving him almost completely paralysed below the shoulders. He understood his new reality better than most. For decades, he had been a carer for people with paralysis. “There was a deep depression,” he says. “I thought that when this happened to me there was nothing — nothing that I could do or give.”
But then Johnson’s rehabilitation team introduced him to researchers from the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, who invited him to join a clinical trial of a brain–computer interface (BCI). This would first entail neurosurgery to implant two grids of electrodes into his cortex. These electrodes would record neurons in his brain as they fire, and the researchers would use algorithms to decode his thoughts and intentions. The system would then use Johnson’s brain activity to operate computer applications or to move a prosthetic device. All told, it would take years and require hundreds of intensive training sessions. “I really didn’t hesitate,” says Johnson.
The first time he used his BCI, implanted in November 2018, Johnson moved a cursor around a computer screen. “It felt like The Matrix,” he says. “We hooked up to the computer, and lo and behold I was able to move the cursor just by thinking.”