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Scientists harness mysteries of the brain

A young woman, confined to a wheelchair, is told to think about moving another wheelchair in front of her, first to the left and then forward.
/ Source: Reuters

A young woman, confined to a wheelchair, is told to think about moving another wheelchair in front of her, first to the left and then forward.

As if by magic, the wheelchair follows her mental commands.

“She was controlling the chair with her imagination,” said Timothy Surgenor, president and chief executive of Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems.

Surgenor was using the video of the woman, who was paralyzed by a brain stem stroke, to demonstrate a technology called BrainGate to some 900 researchers, physicians and investors attending a meeting at the Cleveland Clinic earlier this month.

The woman had a tiny sensor that analyzes brain signals implanted on the part of her brain that controls hand movement.

A small plug protruding from just above her ear is connected to a computer that in turn has a wireless connection to the electronic wheelchair she was controlling.

“What we are doing now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Brain Neuromodulation Centers at the Cleveland Clinic, said in an interview. “This concept is evolving.”

For people living with paralysis, the technology has the potential to be life-changing.

Stephen Heywood was one of some 30,000 people in the United States suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a participant in the BrainGate trial.

“After being paralyzed for so long, it is almost impossible to describe the magical feeling of imagining a motion and having it occur,” Heywood said in an e-mail to his brother James after a session controlling a robotic arm.

Heywood, whose fight with the disease was documented in the movie “So Much So Fast,” died on Nov. 26 after his respirator became accidentally detached.

Electronic stimulation of neurons
Surgenor said BrainGate should be commercially available before the end of the decade.

“A lot of the technology that supports BrainGate is already out there,” he said. Cyberkinetics provides the operating system. The goal is to make the components small enough and wireless, thus eliminating the need for a plug on the scalp.

Northstar Neuroscience, another company attending the meeting at Cleveland Clinic, is testing a device that aims to help stroke victims recover from disabilities such as impairment of hand and arm movement.

The therapy identifies specific areas of the brain that are trying to compensate for lost function and implants electrodes there. Electronic stimulation theoretically strengthens connections between neurons.

“It works by taking advantage of a naturally-occurring phenomenon called neuroplasticity -- the brain’s ability to reorganize in response to an injury,” Northstar Chief Executive Alan Levy said.

When part of the brain dies because of a stroke, another part of the brain attempts to take over that function. The trouble is, in most cases the process doesn’t go far enough and relatively little function is recovered, he said.

“What Northstar has discovered is that if you stimulate the neurons in the new neuroplastic area, you can dramatically enhance the neuroplasticity and enhance function,” he said.

For several years, doctors have been implanting brain pacemakers into patients with Parkinson’s disease or other disorders that cause severe tremors.

The stop-watch size device, made by Medtronic Inc., is implanted in the chest and connected to leads threaded into the brain. Known as deep brain stimulation, it delivers electrical pulses to targeted areas in the brain to interrupt the signals that cause tremor.

Medtronic is testing to see if it might also help cases of obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and obesity.

Cleveland Clinic’s Rezai said using electricity to stimulate various parts of the nervous system or organs may soon help people who suffer such varied afflictions as OCD, migraine headaches, sleep apnea, incontinence, obesity, impotence, hypertension and even heart failure.

“There will be a lot of diseases that we can’t help today that we will be able to help.”