Sunday, December 05, 2004


My lovely wife sent me this article and my eyes bugged out of my head. This has the potential to make life much, much better even for people totally paralyzed by ALS. However there is one catch, about which I have emailed the author of the article:

I read your article on Matthew Nagle in the S.F. Chronicle. One thing your article did not make clear to me was whether the implant only works with motor neurons. Since ALS involves the death of all motor neurons, it would seem to render the implant useless for someone with ALS.

We'll see if he responds. I also emailed my local neurologist.

Here's some of the article. I didn't copy all of it, and the link back to the S.F, Chronicle no longer works:

    In June, surgeons implanted a sensor under the skull and directly into the brain of a 25-year-old Rhode Island paraplegic named Matthew Nagle. That allowed him to control a computer and other machines using pure thought.

    Plugged into a computer with a fiber-optic cable attached to a node on his skull, Nagle can operate a computer by thinking. Not long ago, researchers also hooked up his brain to a prosthetic arm. With practice, he was able to open and close the artificial hand. "Not bad, man, not bad," he said.

    When he moved the arms up and down, he said: "Holy s -- !"

    With that, the age of neuro-cybernetics began -- that is, the science of using machines to carry out commands of the human brain to move parts of the body.

    Nagle is a long way from rising up out of his wheelchair, but he is responding so well to this new world at the edge of science that researchers don't rule out the possibility that he may one day walk using mechanical legs controlled by thought.

    Three years ago, the former high school football star was stabbed in the neck during a brawl at Wessagussett Beach in Weymouth, Mass. The 8-inch blade severed his spine, leaving him paralyzed and on a respirator.

    Nagle was destined to live his life unable to move from the neck down until he was chosen to be the cybernetic equivalent of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

    The implant, called the Braingate Neural Interface System, was conceived by John Donoghue, head of Brown University's neuroscience department. He co- founded Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems of Foxboro, Mass., which is making and testing the device.

    Other researchers around the country are working on similar devices, and some have already implanted much simpler electrode devices into the brains of two patients. But Cyberkinetics is the first to receive FDA approval for human testing using an array of electrodes on as many as five severely disabled patients.

    Donoghue developed the technology from work he began in the 1980s studying how the brain translates thought into action, which involves trying to figure out the mechanics of how neurons become excited. His team then made the leap in postulating that they could translate the electronic impulses into commands to operate a computer or a machine.

    Teaming up with researchers at the University of Utah who had developed advanced neuro-sensor chips, Donoghue implanted electrodes into the brain of a rhesus monkey that had been taught to play computer games with a joystick.

    They hooked up the monkey's chip to a computer that simulated the movements of the joystick, and electrical impulses from the monkey's brain allowed the cursor to move onscreen. Donoghue's 2002 paper in Nature announcing his results was a sensation.

    But the researchers had no idea what the monkey was thinking, or if they could render what was going on in the simian brain in a human. But just as monkeys were first primates in outer space, the rhesus was the forerunner for Matthew Nagle's device.

    The sensor in Nagle's brain is the size of a baby aspirin, with 100 thin, hair-like electrodes on one side. The surgeon drilled a small hole in Nagle's head and implanted the Braingate device above a specific region of the brain between the top of the skull and the ears, long known to control motor activity.

    Donoghue explains that the electrodes pick up on electric signals that spike when a cell is activated by thought -- a "beep, beep, beep, beep" he says, speeding up the beeps to simulate what happens when a brain cell gets excited. "With motor cells, thought drives activity."

    The implant is attached to a computer that translates the beep signals into commands -- to move a cursor, or to open and close an artificial hand.

    Nagle is responding so well, he says, that the software lagging behind his ability to use the device. "It's like riding a bicycle. At first, it's wobbly. He over-steers and that sort of thing. Then he's suddenly riding. Now he's cruising along without thinking too hard. He talks to us while he's on the computer."

    Nagle lives in a chronic-care home. He was already hooked up to his television, which he operates by bopping his head against a device. One bop summons the nurse, two bops turns on the television. So far, he can only mind- meld with his computer when a technician is around. "We're working as fast as we can to automate the software," says Donoghue.

    If Nagle has exceeded Donoghue's expectations, the researcher cautions that this 25-year-old may prove to be an anomaly, although he is performing in a way similar to the monkey. "We need to see if this technology works on more people," he says.

    In 1999, cyber-guru Ray Kurzweil wrote "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence." He argued that computers would one day become smarter than humans. Kurzweil predicted the human brain-computer interface link-up would happen in about 2009.

    We're early, although this may indicate that Kurzweil's larger thesis will also come more quickly than he thought -- the eventual fusion of mind and machine.

    Which raises the question of where the human ends and the machine begins    which has become a topic of furious debate in genetics as well as cybernetics.

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by