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Brain-Computer Interfaces Come to Life Outside Fantasy World of "Avatar"

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Many moviegoers were wowed by Avatar’s surreal scenery and brilliant colors brought to life by 3-D technology. Without giving away the plot, the movie tells the tale of a paraplegic Marine who is able to leave his wheelchair behind thanks to a new technology called "the link"–a chamber that links the user’s brain with that of an "avatar" or a surrogate alien that lives in a computer fanatasy world. "The link" is a likely technology for a futuristic movie like Avatar, but now real-life science is coming up with similar gadgets that can help the disabled, as well as treat several other debilitating and life-changing illnesses.

Scientists at Georgia Tech University’s BrainLab as well as neuroscientist at other well-known university’s are excited over new technology that could help the disabled, treat diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and provide therapy for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. That is, brain-computer interfaces that could even allow users to eventually communicate with friends telepathically, give superhuman hearing or vision, or instantly "download" data to the brain. Sounds like a science fiction movie, doesn’t it? According to scientists, the brain produces enough electricity to move robots, wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs–as long as the brain is aided by an external processor. An external processor would essentially "harness" the electrical power of the brain.

These external processors are referred to as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and come in two forms: noninvasive techniques that use electrodes that are placed on the scalp to measure electrical activity of the brain and invasive techniques, where the electrodes are implanted directly into the brain. Much of the research is focused on providing people with physical abilities that have otherwise been taken away by injuries or illnesses. When BCIs are used in this manner, they are referred to as neuroprosthetics and help the brain to compensate for injuries or illness. For example, some of the lastest technology that researchers are working on includes robots to help paralyzed people around their homes, or even cochlear implants to help the deaf "hear" again. While some scientists believe that average consumers will someday have access to this technology, it probably won’t be any time soon–none of the current research comes cheaply and is funded primarily by giant research institutions such as the National Institutes for Health or NASA. It looks like most of us will have to wait a little bit longer to have our very own "avatar".