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Neural prosthetics technology: Current Capabilities

Currently, there are several labs working on neural prosthetics technology, all located in the US. One of these labs has recently started a company, Cyberkinetics, which is undertaking clinical trials to assess the safety of a neural prosthetic device. Cyberkinetics has only released limited information regarding the efficacy of its neural prosthetic technology, so it is difficult to assess the success of the clinical trials thus far.

Most researchers working in this domain are recording signals from primary motor cortex. This area of the brain controls the trajectory of individual muscles in the body and is a relatively straightforward source of control signals for neural prosthetic applications. Recordings from primary motor cortex have proven efficacious. The Nicolelis laboratory has reported accuracy rates upwards of 80% when using neural activity to move a cursor to a randomly placed target on a flat computer screen, while the Schwartz laboratory has shown accuracy of close to 80% in a three-dimensional target acquisition task.

Other brain areas outside of primary motor cortex have been shown to be useful as well. For instance, an area in the posterior parietal cortex called the parietal reach region (PRR) has been shown to encode the goals of a subject's motor plan. Using control signals from PRR allows subjects to attain accuracy rates of close to 90% in an eight-direction decode with as little as 16 neurons. In addition, this area encodes additional variables such as the amount of reward the subject is expecting, which can possibly be used to continuously monitor a subject's motivation and assess the reliability of control signals derived from specific neurons.

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