If you wanted to find a single, defining “wow” moment at BIF8, chances are you wouldn’t have to look beyond John Donoghue’s amazing video of a paralyzed woman moving a robotic arm simply by thinking.
It wasn’t science fiction, it was science.
Donoghue is the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor and Director of the Brain Science Program at Brown University.
Like many of the BIF innovator-storytellers, his passion for the subject came from a challenging childhood experience. When he was young, he was ill with a bone disease that confined him to a wheelchair and was often in contact with those who had movement disorders.
A few years ago, he told The New York Times, “When I entered graduate school at Brown in 1976, I wanted to learn how the brain works. That’s too big a question. You have to break it down. So I picked a smaller one: how does the cerebral cortex allow thoughts to become action?”
Donoghue was fortunate to do his post doctorate work at the NIH laboratory of Ed Evarts, who had developed a technique for studying single brain cells and learning how their activities related to behavior. Donoghue adds, “The brain, however, doesn’t compute one cell at a time — it computes in clusters. So I could see that for the field to progress, we needed to find ways to study many cells at once. And so, in the 1980s, when I headed my own laboratory, we worked on creating technologies to that allowed us to detect continuous brain activity.”
That was the beginning of developing the implant device that’s the key to BrainGate -- the name given to the brain-computer interface that enables paralyzed individuals to control computers an robots with just their thoughts.
Donoghue credits the collaborative culture at Brown for facilitating the research over the years. “It’s part of the fabric of the university to work together.”
The highlight of his BIF8 speech was a video of 58-year-old woman paralyzed by a stroke for almost 15 years. We watched as she used her thoughts to control a robotic arm, grasp a bottle of coffee, serve herself a drink, and return the bottle to the table.
This is the first time in those 15 years, she was able to feed herself. You can watch the same video below
So how did Donoghue and his collaborators (both public and private) accomplish such a feat? In essence, they mapped that area of the brain that controls movement. They were able to use sensors to “eavesdrop” on the electrical signals produced as a person “thinks” about moving an object.
The challenge for BrainGate is perfecting the technology and generating the kind of massive investment that it requires to make it pass muster with the FDA and make it work in the marketplace.
Donoghue’s work is another example of one life less ordinary who just may one day create a miracle for the millions of paralyzed and disabled people who have an opportunity to experience a measure of independence.
That’s innovation at work. And that's just a part of the magic of BIF.
See Video Below:
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