"We're at a junction now of developing a new approach for a brain-machine interface," says senior author Douglas H. Smith, MD, Professor of Neurosurgery and Director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at Penn. "The nervous system will certainly rebel if you place hard or sharp electrodes into it to record signals. However, the nervous system can be tricked to accept an interface letting it do what it likes - assimilating new nerve cells into its own network."
To develop the next generation of prosthetics the idea is to use regions of undamaged nervous tissue to provide command signals to drive a device, such as an artificial limb. The challenge is for a prosthesis to perform naturally, relaying two-way communication with the patient's brain. For example, the patient's thoughts could convert nerve signals into movements of a prosthetic, while sensory stimuli, such as temperature or pressure provides feedback to adapt the movements.
The central feature of the proposed interface is the ability to create transplantable living nervous tissue already coupled to electrodes. Like an extension cord, of sorts, the non-electrode end of the lab-grown nervous tissue could integrate with a patient's nerve, relaying the signals to and from the electrode side, in turn connected to an electronic device.
The difficult thing is going to be decoding the sensory data from parts of the body below the break. But simple control of a prosthetic, that is at worst only a decade away.