It started with a game of Pong. Now the science of brain implants promises a future in which blindness and paralysis can be conquered. . Illustration by Daniel Bejar.When a knife wound permanently damaged his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the neck down in 2001, Matthew Nagel found his world reduced to a keyhole view, to what he could hear and see from his wheelchair.
But after two seemingly hopeless years, scientists wired his thoughts to a computer, and he began to do things quadriplegics were once only able to dream about.
A sensing device in Nagel's brain gave him the power to do simple tasks like playing computer games and sending e-mails. By thinking about where he wanted to place and move the cursor on a computer monitor, Nagel could do so. In a separate exercise, his thoughts were wired to an artificial hand that opens and closes on his order, flexing in ways his own hands no longer can.
"It was easy," says Nagel in a weak but confident voice, adding that he had the basics down pat after just a few days of trial and error.
"This is really the first time that human thoughts have been linked to a computer," says Ali Rezai, MD, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at the Cleveland Clinic, who has been following the development of the BrainGate Neural Interface System being used in Nagel's trial. And the education that scientists have gained by working with Nagel is giving hope to people with a host of medical problems. It's possible that the same technology can give them a future to look forward to as well.
The system, with its big computer cord that's attached to a computer post implanted in the skull, is still somewhat crude and requires more testing before it can be rolled out, but Nagel is a living example of what BrainGate technology can do for quadriplegics. Drop the wires, enhance the software, and add some new tech accessories, and the simple brain games that trial volunteers are playing today will be replaced by a system that offers new ways to have fun, new worlds of communication, and new opportunities to work and to be creative again.
But that's just the launch phase for this science program.
Connect these devices to ongoing research efforts that use deep-brain stimulation techniques to manage epilepsy and other neurological disorders, and they can start to predict and manage the electrical storms that afflict the brain. Go even further, out to a point where scientists really understand the way the brain communicates, and sensors can be designed to begin feeding back information in ways that can offer a radically new method of sensory input, one which eventually could provide sight for the blind.