The person thinks, electrical activity in his brain increases and sends a message to a computer chip. Science fiction? Think again! Brain implants are still experimental, but one neurosurgeon has had success with several patients. Will we all become Borg?
Dr Roy Bakay of Emory University, Georgia has developed a technique which allows human brain cells to fuse with an electronic implant allowing the person to communicate directly with a computer. Announcing his success at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons in Seattle, Dr Bakay informed the meeting that he has a patient, known only as JR, who has been able to use the implant to move a cursor around the computer screen.
Dr Bakay said ‘If you can move the cursor you can stop on certain icons, send email, turn lights on or off and interact with the environment’.
The most immediate application of this technique will be to allow people who are totally paralysed to express their thoughts and even to control artifical limbs.
Dr Bakay goes on to say ‘The trick is teaching the patient to control the strength and pattern of the electric impulses being produced in the brain’. After training they are able to ‘will’ a cursor to move and then stop.
J.R., a 53-year-old man, was the second person to receive the implant, about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen, but only the first to successfully communicate with a computer using his thoughts, said Dr. Bakay, who developed the implant with Dr. Phillip Kennedy.
“What we’ve done is enabled a patient who was unable to move his limbs or speak to communicate through a computer,” Bakay, an Emory University researcher, said. “We have him think about movement. This sends a signal to a receiving unit in his scalp, which sends a message to the computer screen.”
“It’s like operating an on/off switch.” he said. “The person thinks about the activity, electrical activity in his brain increases and sends a message to control the cursor.”
The implants consist of two tiny hollow glass cones coated with neurotropic chemicals extracted from the recipients’ peripheral nerves. The chemicals encourage nerves to grow into the cones, penetrating the glass, Bakay said.
“This puts the cells inside the cone so it keeps the cells going for a very long time. It is critical to train these cells in a stable environment,” he said. “The nerve tissue grows into the cone and forms contacts or synapses.
“It’s those signals that we pick up. It’s like having a little piece of isolated brain within the glass cone. We are able to run electrical activity off of that.”
Although Bakay said the research, which began 12 years ago, is in its infancy, future steps may include training “a whole series of cells to do things. There is tremendous potential.”
He said the goal is to improve a recipient’s ability at the computer so he would be able to type letters and send e-mail. “We’d like to get them on the Internet and open communications to the rest of the world, and vice versa.
“After that, we’d like for them to use the computer to control their environments, turn lights on and off, adjust a bed, call an attendant, turn the TV on or off. Finally, we hope they will be able to run prosthetic devices, wheelchairs, even prosthetic limbs”
Bakay and Kennedy decided to use glass cones because metal “pokes holes into cells and they die,” he said.
The two people who have received the implants were both very ill, Bakay said.
The first recipient died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”) before she could be trained to control the computer cursor, he said.
J.R. is also in poor health, hospitalized at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Decatur, Ga. A massive stroke paralyzed him and left him on a ventilator.
Bakay said the first recipient was “only able to move her eyes up and down and sideways a little bit,” but died three months after receiving the implant.
“She was able to prove all our basic premises for us,” Bakay said. “She helped us identify the cells we were looking for in this project.”
Bakay said a third recipient likely would be chosen next year after he and Kennedy fully understand how much the current subject can accomplish. But he said the project has very limited financing.
Bakay and Kennedy experimented first with monkeys at Yerkes Regional Primate Center in Atlanta, then won permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to try the implants on three human recipients.
“Dr. Kennedy and I are two overworked clinicians who still have patients to see,” Bakay said. “We need some help. We are hoping some venture capitalist will be interested.”