UW research

Controlling Medical Devices Just by Thinking About It

University of Washington researchers explore “Volitional Control.”

The Emerald City of Seattle is known for innovations in music.

But in the shadows of the Space Needle and Mount Rainier, software engineers are working on innovations in healthcare, trying to help patients control their implanted medical devices just by thinking about them.

“Voluntary control really empowers the patient to take control of the situation,” said Howard Chizeck, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington. “It makes the device part of them. They’re not being controlled by the system they’re controlling it.”

Software engineers at the University of Washington are working on innovations in health care.

Software engineers at the University of Washington are working on innovations in health care.

For years, brain surgeons have used deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease. Electrodes implanted in the brain deliver stimulation that manages some of the movement symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor.

But it’s not perfect. Constant stimulation means batteries can wear out quicker compared to only delivering stimulation when needed, and there can be side effects even with optimal therapy.

“And so it can affect your speech, your balance,” said Dr. Andrew Ko of the University of Washington Medical Center.

“If you don’t need it and you can avoid the side effects, fine tuning, adjusting the stimulation to the patients’ needs is actually, in principle, going to be better for them,” he said.

An investigational Medtronic technology may be key to making that happen. It not only delivers electrical stimulation to the brain, but for the first time, can also record brain activity, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“That’s a game changer. Suddenly we can then study how people learn to use the brain signals commands over much longer periods of time than is currently available,” said Jeffrey Herron, an electrical engineering researcher at the University of Washington.  

brain dbs research

Researchers are sifting through mountains of brain data.

The goal is to sift through this new brain data and find the precise electrical malfunction causing the problem. Then allow patients, through the power of their thoughts, to turn on their implanted stimulator, apply enough stimulation to interrupt the tremor, and turn it back off.

“That changes everything,” said Professor Chizeck. “Because the individual knows when they need more stimulation or when they want less because of the side effects. They could do that with a neural signal, just by thinking.” Eventually the connection between man and machine might even become automatic.

“For me it’s almost like you don’t think about how to move your arm,” said Herron. “You instead just move your arm.”

Researchers at nearly 20 other universities are also analyzing data from the devices. One is working on wearable sensors that could activate brain stimulation when they detect a tremor. Others are searching for electrical patterns that trigger other brain diseases, like epilepsy, OCD and dystonia.

It’s a tall mountain to climb, to be sure. But if medical devices controlled by a person’s own thoughts - could someday treat brain diseases – it would be an innovation for the ages. 

Important Information

Research and technology innovations discussed are under development or are in the investigational phase only, and are not approved for commercialization in the U.S.

Important Safety Information:

Deep brain stimulation therapy is not for everyone. DBS Therapy requires brain surgery which could have serious or even fatal complications. Other complications can occur and may require additional surgery. Medtronic DBS Therapy may cause worsening of some symptoms. For additional safety information, please refer to our Indications, Safety and Warnings for Deep Brain Stimulation.