Uppsala researchers involved in multimillion SEK project on wireless body area networks
1 March 2021
The idea that we humans could control prosthetic parts of our bodies with our thoughts is no longer a utopian fantasy. The first steps are now being taken as part of an EU project in which researchers are making it possible for the brain to communicate with prostheses via wireless networks inside the body. The coordinator of this EU project entitled B-CRATOS is Robin Augustine from the Department of Electrical Engineering at Uppsala University.
When the nervous system works as it should, we barely give it a second thought. But the moment we suffer an injury or disease or lose a body part, the importance of our automatic nerve signal functions becomes apparent. As part of the four-year B-CRATOS project, researchers will be developing wireless body area networks (WBANs) with the aim of connecting the nervous system with signalling systems to stimulate various functions, primarily in prostheses. But in the long-term, the aim will be to do the same even in muscles and internal organs. This will be achieved through the use of chip implants in the parts of the body that need to communicate.
To achieve a functional implant, groundbreaking technical methods and expertise are required – which can be found in Robin Augustine’s Microwaves in Medical Engineering group. This research team has been working for five years on the technical circuit board function that will be used in the project’s communication platform. The electronic components in the chip implant will be connected and tested in the cleanroom that is part of the MyFab Uppsala research infrastructure based at Ångström Laboratory.
“In the past, we worked with surgically implanted medical devices connected to the Internet. However, the idea is that these systems will communicate without involving an external computer,” says Robin Augustine.
One of the biggest challenges of chip implants is the microwave signal’s frequency range and how to eliminate the risk of injury. Humans use hundreds of thousands of channels to register nerve signals, which makes it a data-intensive process. At the same, according to Robin Augustine you need two-way communication in order to send information and give the brain feedback on the signals received.
To this end, the Uppsala researchers have developed a technology that involves enclosing the microwave signals in the slender space between the skin and the muscle layer. This natural fat layer encapsulates the signals while simultaneously allowing them to propagate. Thus, the device is able to transmit at frequencies as high as 5.8 gigahertz over distances of around a metre.
The question is why surgically implanted devices are needed when the technology exists to control things like prostheses externally. Robin Augustine explains that the difference is that such things are used more as tools, while the researchers’ ambition is to integrate the artificial arm with human thought.
“For example, the prosthesis can function as a spoon that you are conscious of using. But you never feel like it is part of your body because it is not cognitively integrated into the brain’s processing system. Instead, we want to create a direct connection between a person’s artificial arm, leg or other body part and their brain so that the brain senses its presence and experiences control over this body part. This requires an implant in the brain.”
Another advantage is the security that follows from connecting the brain with another device inside the body.
“When all communications take place under the skin, no one can eavesdrop. You retain privacy and secure the communication,” says Robin Augustine.
Breadth of partners in Europe
The B-CRATOS project has a budget of approximately SEK 46 million and brings together seven partners from higher education institutions, businesses and institutes across Europe. Among the participants is an Italian research team based in Pisa who specialise in robotic arms that can be controlled using brain signals. These brain signals will be captured by electronic chips that will be manufactured by a business partner in the project.
Another partner will use artificial intelligence and high performance data computing facilities to map thought patterns in combination with motor control. A third partner will make modules that can wirelessly transport data and power to implanted devices in the brain.
Approximately SEK 11 million of the budget has been allocated to Uppsala University’s research within the project. Robin Augustine is proud to have an additional partner within the University joining him on the project, also from the Division of Solid State Electronics.
“It’s the Electronics for Smart Life group, which is led by docent Zhibin Zhang. They have extensive experience in areas such as flexible electronic components, soft thermo-electronics for harvesting thermal energy, and sensors.”
Developing tactile sense
Another of the group’s specialities is what are known as neuromorphic tactile sensing systems. These comprise computer circuits that imitate the design of the human brain and nervous system. Within B-CRATOS, Zhang’s research group is therefore responsible for tactile sensing technology and will be developing electronic skin sensor matrices that communicate with the cerebral cortex via the human body’s fat layers, according to Robin Augustine.
If everything goes according to plan, he expects that humans will be able to use WBANs in ten years’ time. However, a string of ethical issues remain that they will need to make decisions about, and the project includes a work package on ethics. An independent advisory panel of experts from disciplinary domains such as artificial intelligence, philosophy, the internet of things and neuroscience will provide input and proposals for improvement.
“Naturally, there are many aspects that we have to consider, and more ethical directives will no doubt come that will need to be taken into account and developed. But this technology will definitely come, and not in the distant future but relatively soon.”
The four-year EU project entitled B-CRATOS (Wireless Brain-Connect inteRfAce TO machineS) is what is known as a FET Open project. EU calls for proposal within FET Open (Future and Emerging Technologies) aim to capture new, visionary ideas and facilitate technological possibilities that are based on advanced science, as well as interdisciplinary partnerships. B-CRATOS faced very tough competition, but the project received a total of 4.95 points out of a maximum possible score of 5.00, and was ranked 10th out of the 58 grants awarded and from a total pool of 877 applicants.
Other partners in the project are Institut Sinano Association, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Blackrock Microsystems Europe GmbH, Fondazione Links, Deutsches Primatenzentrum GmbH and NTNU.
The project will begin on 1 March 2021 and has a budget of roughly SEK 46 million.