In March 2002, Brown University researchers published an astounding piece of science. Three rhesus monkeys, they reported, could control a computer cursor without their hands. They used their minds instead.
This research was translated into a device currently being tested in a 25-year-old Massachusetts man who cannot use his arms or legs. The technology is a success, according to preliminary results unveiled today at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Phoenix.
Using the system, called BrainGate, the patient can read e-mail, play video games, turn lights on or off and change channels or adjust the volume of a television set. In early test sessions, the patient was able to control the TV and carry on a conversation and move his head at the same time.
“I think the results are spectacular, almost unbelievable,” said surgeon Gerhard Friehs, an associate professor of clinical neurosciences at Brown Medical School and the director of functional neurosurgery at Rhode Island Hospital, who implanted the first BrainGate device in June.
“Here we have a research participant who is capable of controlling his environment by thought alone – something we have only found in science fiction so far,” Friehs said. “I hope that the trial will continue as successfully as it has started and that all other candidates will have as great an experience as our first candidate did.”
John Donoghue, the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience, led the original research project and went on to co-found Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc., the Foxborough, Mass., company that created the implantable brain device and is overseeing the clinical trial. Donoghue continues as chief scientific officer at Cyberkinetics.
Donoghue hopes one day that BrainGate can help paralyzed people move by controlling their own electric wheelchairs, communicate by using e-mail and Internet-based phone systems, and be independent by controlling items such as televisions and thermostats.
“Our ultimate goal is to develop the BrainGate System so that it can be linked to many useful devices,” Donoghue said. “This includes medical devices such as muscle stimulators, to give the physically disabled a significant improvement in their ability to interact with the world.”
The original device tested in Donoghue’s lab consisted of a tiny array of electrodes that, when attached to a monkey’s brain, recorded, interpreted and reconstructed activity in the motor cortex, the area of the brain that controls hand movement. The electrodes were connected to a computer by thin cables. At first, the animals used their hands to play a simple pinball computer game. Then researchers turned off the hand control and substituted the reconstructed signal. Monkeys could still move the cursor. The gap between mind and machine was bridged.
Published in the journal Nature, the experiments were conducted by current and former Brown students – Mijail Serruya, Liam Paninski and Matthew Fellows. Nicholas Hatsopolous, a former student and professor now at the University of Chicago, was also part of the team.
Serruya has completed his medical and doctoral studies and now works at Cyberkinetics as a clinical scientist. Seeing the device at work in the lab was thrilling, Serruya said. But watching it at work in a human, he said, is fulfilling.
“At first it was just cool from a scientific point of view,” he said. “But now we’re helping someone with a medical need. And that is great.”
The Cyberkinetics pilot study, based at the Sargent Rehabilitation Center in Warwick, is overseen by Jon Mukand, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of orthopaedics at Brown Medical School. Mukand will present the early findings at today’s meeting. Brown faculty will present similar data at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego later this month.
As many as four other quadriplegics will be enrolled in the pilot study, which was approved last spring by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Final results are expected sometime next year. A second, larger trial must be completed before BrainGate can go on the market.