Monday, July 17, 2006

Neuroscience is Hope

I know this has been around for a few weeks, but a friend just told me about it the other day and I haven't seen anyone else noting it:

A sensor implanted in a paralysed man's brain has enabled him to control objects by using his thoughts alone...

...A team of scientists inserted the device, called a neuromotor prosthesis (NMP), into an area of the brain known as the motor cortex, which is responsible for voluntary movement.

The NMP comprises an internal sensor that detects brain cell activity, and external processors that convert the activity into signals that can be recognised by a computer...

...Using the device, Mr Nagle was able to move a computer cursor to open an e-mail, play simple computer games, open and close a prosthetic hand, and use a robot limb to grasp and move objects.

Mr Nagle said the sensor had restored some of his independence by allowing him to carry out a number of tasks - such as turning the lights on - that a nurse would normally do for him.

He told the BBC: "I can't put it into words. It's just wild."

As they also point out in the article, the big news from this seems to be that three years out, they could still record activity from the motor cortex with enough fidelity in order to translate signals into action. In the long run, this is very very promising. In the short run? I'm less certain, partially due to my lack of general knowledge about the challenges and pitfalls they're looking at & also due to some lack of into in the BBC article. They seem to be implying at certain points that the chip--despite being surgically implanted--is not long-lasting enough to stay indefinitely, and may have already been removed. If that's the case, then this experiment almost amounts to proof-of-concept in humans. That seems to be the opinion of Duke University's Miguel Nicolelis:

He said: "When you decide, like this company did, to go into clinical trials for an invasive technique the stakes are very high.

"They should have demonstrated something that lasts for a long period of time, that it is reliable and safe, and that it can restore much more elaborate functions. I don't think that this paper shows that.

"I think it was too early to use this kind of technology in this kind of clinical trial."

I think we're seeing two different philosophies at work here: Cyberkinetics--the company developing the chip and running the trial--wants to first demonstrate that they're following an approach that actually works in humans, and then (I suspect), improve and upgrade the product over time. Nicolelis wants to have a product guaranteed to be as safe as possible that already performs the tasks you'd want it to before you start trying it out in humans. And he's no slouch: he's one of the men who gave robot arms to monkeys.

I guess the ultimate question I have--which is hopefully covered in the paper as published in Nature--is what the actual durability of these chips are, and whether or not they can be safely removed and replaced. For Matthew Nagle, is it worth a year of improved function if they have to turn him away when they have a real product five years away due to tissue scarring from the first surgery? Or is this not remotely a concern?


At 17 July, 2006 13:21, Anonymous bitwise said...

Note that "three years out" is referring to the time between his injury and when he had the chip implanted.

He actually only had the chip in his head for a year, though the NYT says they pulled it out only because he was due to have another operation to allow him to breathe without a ventilator.

At 17 July, 2006 13:34, Blogger The Neurophile said...

Yes, that's the sense in which I was (trying, at least) to use "three years out".

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