Kathy Beitz, 29, is legally blind - she lost her vision as a child and, for a long time, adapted to living in a world she couldn't see (Kathy has Stargardt disease, a condition that causes macular degeneration). Technology called eSight glasses allowed Kathy to see her son on the day he was born. The glasses cost $15,000 and work by capturing real-time video and enhancing it.
Neuroprosthetics is a relatively new discipline at the boundaries of neuroscience and biomedical engineering, which aims at developing implantable devices to restore neural function. The most popular and clinically successfull neuroprosthesis to date is the cochlear implant, a device that can restore hearing by stimulating directly the human auditory nerve, by bypassing damaged hair cells in the cochlea.
Visual prostheses, on the other hand, are still in a preliminary phase of development, although substantial progress has been made in the last few years. This kind of implantable devices are designed to micro-electrically stimulate nerves in the visual system, based on an image from an external camera. These impulses are then propagated to the visual cortex, which is able to process the information and generate a “pixelated” image. The resulting impression has not the same quality as natural vision but it is still useful for performing basic perceptual and motor tasks, such as identifying an object or navigating a room. An example of this approach is the Boston Retinal Implant Project, a large joint collaborative effort that includes, among others, the Harvard Medical School and MIT.
Another area of neuroprosthetics is concerned with the development of implantable devices to help patients with diseases such as spinal cord injury, limb loss, stroke and neuromuscolar disorders improving their ability to interact with their environment and communicate. These motor neuroprosthetics are also known as “brain computer interfaces” (BCI), which in essence are devices that decode brain signals representing motor intentions and convert these information into overt device control. This process allows the patient to perform different motor tasks, from writing a text on a virtual keyboard to driving a wheel chair or controlling a prosthetic limb. An impressive evolution of motor neuroprosthetic is the combination of BCI and robotics. For example, Leigh R. Hochberg and coll. (Nature 485, 372–375; 2012) have reported that using a robotic arm connected to a neural interface called “BrainGate” two people with long-standing paralysis could control the reaching and grasping actions, such as drinking from a bottle.
Cognitive neuroprosthetics is a further research direction of neuroprosthetics. A cognitive prosthesis is an implantable device which aims at restoring cognitive function to brain-injured individuals by performing the function of the damaged tissue. One of the world’s most advanced effort in this area is being lead by Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Berger and his coll. are attempting to develop a microchip-based neural prosthesis for the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for long-term memory (IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng 20/2, 198–211; 2012). More specifically, the team is developing a biomimetic model of the hippocampal dynamics, which should serve as a neural prosthesis by allowing a bi-directional communication with other neural tissue that normally provides the inputs and outputs to/from a damaged hippocampal area.
Nestle SA will enlist a thousand humanoid robots to help sell its coffee makers at electronics stores across Japan, becoming the first corporate customer for the chatty, bug-eyed androids unveiled in June by tech conglomerate SoftBank Corp.
Nestle has maintained healthy growth in Japan while many of its big markets are slowing, crediting a tradition of trying out off-beat marketing tactics in what is a small but profitable territory for the world's biggest food group.
The waist-high robot, developed by a French company and manufactured in Taiwan, was touted by Japan's SoftBank as capable of learning and expressing human emotions, and of serving as a companion or guide in a country that faces chronic labor shortages.
Nestle said on Wednesday it would initially commission 20 of the robots, called Pepper, in December to interact with customers and promote its coffee machines. By the end of next year, the maker of Nescafe coffee and KitKat chocolate bars plans to have the robots working at 1,000 stores.
"We hope this new type of made-in-Japan customer service will take off around the world," Nestle Japan President Kohzoh Takaoka said in a statement.
Nestle did not say how much it was paying for Pepper, which SoftBank has said would retail for 198,000 yen ($1,830). The robot is already greeting customers at more than 70 SoftBank mobile phone stores in Japan.
Among Nestle's most successful Japan-only initiatives is the Nescafe Ambassador system, in which individuals stock coffee pods and collect money for them at their offices in exchange for free use of machines and other perks. Nestle wants half a million "ambassadors" by 2020 - nearly quadruple the number now - as it expands into museums, beauty salons and even temples.
The Japanese unit has also developed hundreds of KitKat flavors including wasabi and green tea, and this year rolled out a KitKat that can be baked into cookies.
The latest creation from Aldebaran, Pepper is the first robot designed to live with humans.
Brain networks in two behaviourally-similar vegetative patients (left and middle), but one of whom imagined playing tennis (middle panel), alongside a healthy adult (right panel). Credit: Srivas Chennu
People locked into a vegetative state due to disease or injury are a major mystery for medical science. Some may be fully unconscious, while others remain aware of what’s going on around them but can’t speak or move to show it. Now scientists at Cambridge have reported in journal PLOS Computational Biology on a new technique that can help identify locked-in people that can still hear and retain their consciousness.
Some details from the study abstract:
We devised a novel topographical metric, termed modular span, which showed that the alpha network modules in patients were also spatially circumscribed, lacking the structured long-distance interactions commonly observed in the healthy controls. Importantly however, these differences between graph-theoretic metrics were partially reversed in delta and theta band networks, which were also significantly more similar to each other in patients than controls. Going further, we found that metrics of alpha network efficiency also correlated with the degree of behavioural awareness. Intriguingly, some patients in behaviourally unresponsive vegetative states who demonstrated evidence of covert awareness with functional neuroimaging stood out from this trend: they had alpha networks that were remarkably well preserved and similar to those observed in the controls. Taken together, our findings inform current understanding of disorders of consciousness by highlighting the distinctive brain networks that characterise them. In the significant minority of vegetative patients who follow commands in neuroimaging tests, they point to putative network mechanisms that could support cognitive function and consciousness despite profound behavioural impairment.
Study in PLOS Computational Biology: Spectral Signatures of Reorganised Brain Networks in Disorders of Consciousness