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My Thoughts Spelt Out

Brain Chip Research

Brain chip research aims for future movement

(CNN) — Matthew Nagel awoke from a two-week coma in the summer of 2001 to learn he was paralyzed from the neck down.

“My mother was right by my side and explained that I got stabbed,” he recalled.

He faced a future of never being able to walk again and having to breathe with a ventilator.

But things changed temporarily for then 25-year-old Nagel when he became the first person to have a device implanted in his brain designed to connect his thoughts and convert them to actions.

How it would work

The BrainGate Neural Interface is being developed by Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc. in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

The device is a 4 by 4 millimeter arrangement of 100 electrodes. It is surgically implanted in the motor cortex, the part of the brain responsible for creating movement in the limbs.

The implanted chip connects to a small platform protruding from the patient’s skull that is linked to an external processor.

If the system works as hoped, the chip detects and sends signals from the motor cortex to the processor, which interprets them and feeds them into a computer.

After doctors implanted the device in Nagel’s brain, they saw some encouraging signs.

“Within the first three days I was able to control the cursor pretty much,” Nagel said. “When I think back on it, it’s kind of a trip to think that my brain signals was controlling a mouse, changing channels on my TV, adjusting the volume, opening e-mails.”

A symphony of cells

In February, Cyberkinetics announced that it had four more participants in two of its pilot clinical studies — one for quadriplegic patients with spinal cord injuries, stroke or muscular dystrophy, and the other for people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease. ALS is a fatal degenerative disease characterized by continual loss of muscle control.

Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital is helping to develop the device and is involved with one of the trials. He, too, was encouraged by Nagel’s accomplishments.

“Of course, it’s important to replicate to see that other people with paralysis can achieve the same goals or, perhaps, others,” he said.

Hochberg said that if it’s possible to listen to those signals in the brain, perhaps they could be interpreted and used to control a computer cursor.

“Listening to one cell at a time is much like listening to the solo violinist,” Hochberg said. “But listening to dozens at a time is beginning to hear the whole symphony.”

Hochberg said the initial goal of the research is to test the safety and feasibility of the device.

“If that’s successful, then the long term goal of brain computer interface research is to see if one day we can reconnect brain to limb,” he said.

Thoughts for the future

Results down the road from the clinical trials and continued research could be promising for people like Nagel and Rosemarie Sherry. She was diagnosed with ALS in December 2003.

“I was one of the people who whenever anybody did something nice for me, I would send them a ‘thank you’ card … And [now] I can’t,” she said.

One of Sherry’s concerns is that eventually she’ll lose the ability to do the things she loves, like updating her blog.

“I like to blog because I’m able to write my feelings down, and I like for people to see that life can be still lived with a disease such as mine,” Sherry said. But it isn’t always easy.

“Most times I have to use my left hand to move my right hand on the mouse,” she said.

She’s rapidly losing the ability to move and speak. But, like most people with ALS, there is nothing wrong with her mind.

And while Sherry isn’t a part of the current clinical studies, Hochberg hopes that 10 years from now continued research will help to improve devices like BrainGate and enable people like her to move again.

“I’m very hopeful that these technologies will be able to help people with paralysis in the future; to make communication occur more easily, to allow people to control their environment more directly and, I hope, to one day to be able to move again,” Hochberg said.


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