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But he and others said the technology faces a number of hurdles to widespread use, like reducing its high cost, making it more reliable, and refining the technology. For example, the brain implant now sends signals out with a wire through the skull, and researchers want to develop a completely implanted version that communicates wirelessly.

Another step toward wide use will be enticing companies to invest the money to make commercial products. Just when that might happen is an open question, Schwartz said, but it could be in the next couple of years, with prostheses or free-standing robotic arms on the market a few years after that.

Dr. Bruce Gans, executive vice president and chief medical officer of the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., said the technology is too expensive now for widespread use. But if brain control finds uses outside the relatively limited market of paralyzed people, that might drive improvements in technology and dramatically reduce the cost, he said.

Gans suggested other uses might involve industrial applications; neuroscientist Andrew Jackson of Newcastle University in England suggested it might be in rehabilitation for victims of less severe strokes.

At some point, Gans said, “It may even turn into something that allows a person with paralysis to go back to work, so it becomes a tool a vocational rehabilitation program could eventually endorse and support.”

Dr. Preeti Raghavan, an expert in physical rehabilitation of the arms and hands at the New York University Langone Medical Center, noted that the cost of the technology would be weighed against the significant expense of caregiving for paralyzed people who can’t do much on their own.

She said she expected that within a decade, many people may be using the technology to control their own limbs or robotic arms. Gans said that wider use of robotic arms might be feasible within five years, but that reactivating paralyzed limbs could be decades away.

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Online:

Journal Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

Research program: http://www.braingate2.org

___ Malcolm Ritter can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/malcolmritter