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Scientists study brain using teen playing 'Space Invaders'
By JEFF DOUGLAS
The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS -- The teenager jukes missiles and blasts aliens in the video game. But it's his brain, not his thumbs, doing all the work.
The 14-year-old, part of a study at Washington University, played the old-school video game "Space Invaders" by simply using his brain as a controller. Researchers hope the study ultimately leads to development of more advanced devices that use brain commands to control things such as artificial limbs and wheelchairs.
"My real motivation for this is helping people with disabilities," said Dr. Eric Leuthardt, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the university's School of Medicine. "We chose to do a video game because we knew a teenage patient would be into it."
The teen, who did not want his name used, suffers from severe epilepsy and was experiencing daily seizures. Neurosurgeons had to remove a piece of his skull to treat a small part of the brain causing the seizures.
Researchers knew that with the brain exposed for the operation, they had a rare opportunity to use it for a study of ultrahigh brain frequencies. Leuthardt invited the teen to participate, and he agreed. The study is the first of its kind on an adolescent, the university said.
The teen was hospitalized to wait for a seizure to happen so doctors could locate the problem and treat it.
Wires attached to the surface of the teen's brain sent electric signals to a computer to help them locate what part of the brain was causing the seizures and remove it.
Using those same wires, the teen was ready to try "Space Invaders," an early video game in which the player tries to shoot down invading aliens amid a counterattack.
At first, the teen tapped his right hand to move his spacecraft one way, and moved his tongue to move it another. Eventually, he was able to make those movements on the video screen simply by using his brain. The "Space Invaders" laser cannon fired continuously.
Within hours, the teen shot his way to the third level of the game.
"The real breakthrough with this project is the focus on higher frequencies of the brain. That's where the secrets are," said Daniel Moran, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering also involved in the multidiscipline study.
The study was exciting news for John Donoghue, co-founder of Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems. His Foxborough, Mass.-based company researches alternative ways for the brain to communicate to the outside world using devices that translate the brain's electric activity.
Cyberkinetics was among the first to prove that a quadriplegic can drive a wheelchair with his thoughts and a mute person can communicate sentences on a computer without saying a word.
"The idea of replacing missing biological connections with a physical bridge will be moving very fast in the coming years with more research like this," Donoghue said.
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Video of the "Space Invaders" study: