Brit wires nervous system to computer

A controversial British robotics scientist connects his nervous system to a computer in an experiment he hopes will eventually give paralyzed people more control over their bodies.

A controversial British robotics scientist has had his nervous system wired up to a computer in an experiment he hopes will eventually give paralyzed people more control over their own bodies.

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University, southern England, has had minute sensors implanted into the main nerve in his left arm and hooked up to a radio transceiver that will send and receive messages from a computer.

"We have a serious goal, a very medical goal of helping people with spinal injuries and the like where there is a break in the nervous system," Warwick told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"We will be sending signals from the nervous system to the computer by radio and back the other way." He said the idea was to record on a computer the signals sent, for example, when a finger is moved and then to play them back in the hope of activating the finger by remote control.

News of the research came on the same day that a court made British legal history by allowing a woman, paralyzed from the neck down and kept alive by a machine, to order doctors to turn off her life support because she knew she had no quality of life.

Remote control
The professor said the aim of his experiment was to give people with spinal injuries at least some ability to move by remote control or to give them back the control of their bodies.

Warwick, who has made a name for himself investigating artificial intelligence and the potential for directly linking humans to machines, said the operation to fit the implants at Oxford's Radcliffe Infirmary, about 55 miles from London, had been a total success.

The next crucial stage will come next week when the radio/computer link will be established and the researchers would find what, if any, signals were being picked up.

"I am hopeful because I am already getting tingling sensations in my index finger," he said. Warwick said there were 10,000 nerve fibers in the main nerve, which controls most of the hand. But with only 100 sensors implanted in the nerve, it is difficult to know exactly which bits of the hand had been wired up to the computer.

"Which pins are linked up with which nerve and whether we have got this finger or that finger remains to be seen," Warwick said. "That will be one of the first things, mapping out the pins and how they link up. Which pins have got motor signals on them, which pins have got sensory signals on them? Until now there have only been theories."

Warwick, who shocked the scientific world in 1998 by having a silicon chip transponder implanted in his left arm, has been featured in the U.S. magazine "Wired," and in 2000 gave the critically acclaimed Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

Story Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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