BrainGate – Making Damaged Bodies Function
By James Donahue
I was a fan of Mad Magazine probably from the first day it appeared in print. I may
have owned a first edition copy at one time. One of those first issues contained a cartoon story of a futuristic world in
which technology had become so advanced that humans were so dependent upon machines their muscles were atrophied. Everybody
rode around in mechanized wheelchairs. Machines prepared their meals, fed them, maintained their homes and took care of their
The machines that ran this world, at least in the comic story, were controlled by
a master computer, or brain. In the story something went wrong with the computer, it stopped working, and the people suddenly
found themselves trapped in bodies that no longer worked.
That was the Mad version of a future world as envisioned in the 1950s. Strangely,
a reverse version of that very idea is being developed by a group of world-renowned experts in robotics and computers at such
prestigious universities as Brown, Harvard, Emory, MIT, Columbia and the University of Utah. The joint project has been given
the odd name BrainGate.
The idea is to develop computer technology that works with the human brain to make
such devices as wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs and voice machines assist people with pronounced physical disabilities enjoy
improved lives. Thus there may be hope for paraplegics, quadriplegics, the many military men and women returning home from
the wars with missing arms and legs, people with spinal cord injuries and even stroke victims.
The researchers are so optimistic about the work they are doing they believe the
BrainGate project has the potential to revolutionize the way our brains work.
The BrainGate project is described as a brain implant system developed by Cyberkinetics,
a bio-tech company working with the Department of Neuroscience at Brown University. It involves implanting a computer chip
in the brain that monitors brain activity and uses the information to issue computer commands that move mechanical devices.
It is a simple concept, but it has involved working with a complex part of the human
body, the human brain. And this has taken years and years of research by a lot of very skilled people from all around the
The chip now being tried uses 96 hair-thin electrodes that sense the electro-magnetic
signatures of neurons firing in targeted areas of the brain. For example, if the chip is inserted to control a robotic arm,
it is placed in the part of the brain that controls arm movement.
Early experiments with the chip have involved placing chips in a man with a spinal
cord injury and another suffering from advanced ALS. Pilot trials also were conducted on four patients suffering from tetaplegia,
a reduced ability to use their arms and legs.
The results of the early trials have proven that the BrainGate chip may soon become
a workable solution for hundreds of thousands of wheelchair-bound people.
It was reported that the trial involving the paraplegic was so successful, the patient
was able to steer his wheelchair by blowing into a tube connected to his mouth. Also by using his thoughts to manipulate a
computer cursor, the patient successfully opened and read e-mails, played video games, grasped objects with a robotic arm.
He even operated light switches and television controls by mere thought.
As promising as the early trials sound, the researchers warn that they still have
a lot of bugs to work out before BrainGate can be made available to the public. They say the technology cries for improved
wireless transmissions. Also they have found that once the chip is implanted in the brain, the ability of the electrodes to
communicate with brain signals deteriorates. They do not know why this happens. So the chip only works for a few months and
then must be replaced. Leaving a permanent hole in the patient’s head creates a high risk of infection.
Nevertheless, the researchers are determined to make the BrainGate project work.
And there is one thing we all know about human ingenuity. In a strange sense, we are all gods when it comes down to creating
things. No goal seems to be impossible if we set our minds to achieving it.
Other researchers are working on yet another device called Functional Electrical
Stimulation. They are using small electrical pulses to stimulate muscles in paralyzed limbs to make them function again. The
project is also designed to help paraplegics and patients suffering from muscular degeneration enjoy normal activities like
grasping objects, standing and walking, and improving bladder and bowel functions.
If successful, the future may look much brighter for the handicapped. All we can
hope for is that the mad scientists don’t carry the project to the extremes depicted in the 1950s Mad Magazine cartoon.