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Turning thoughts into action

Researchers are developing BrainGate technology in an attempt to allow thousands of paralyzed Americans to turn thoughts into action. CNBC’s Hampton Pearson reports.
/ Source: CNBC

A simple click of the mouse ... it’s something most of us do hundreds, if not thousands of times a day. Thoughtless — or so it would seem.

But behind the scenes, millions of neurons are firing, sending morse code-like messages to the spinal cord to take action.

But for tens of thousands of paralyzed Americans, a breakdown in the last mile makes “turning thoughts into action” impossible.

So what if there was a way to bridge that gap, and give the disabled seamless access to the computer and beyond?

“They could choose to control lights, their environment and heat and appliances and so forth,” says Cyberkinetics CEO Tim Surgenor. “And they potentially even could choose to operate their own limbs.”

Surgenor and his team believe a chip — no larger than a fingernail, yet bearing 100 tiny electrodes — is the building block they need to construct a connection between the brain and the computer.

“We’re trying to go around the paralysis and go directly into the computer,” Surgenor said.

Recent clinical trials in monkeys at Brown University, overseen by the father of the so-called “BrainGate” technology, Dr. John Donoghue (also a co-founder of Cyberkinetics), have been so successful that the group is gearing up to petition the Federal Drug Administration to start human trials as early as next spring.

“When I move my finger, this simulates a change in brain activity or my thought patterns,” Donoghue said while displaying a computer that reflected a patient’s thinking.

“And when the patient thinks, it results in the cursor moving on the computer screen.”

“The patient wants to open a Web browser, so they think to move the cursor over to the icon, and then the Web browser opens, and then by thinking, they can move the cursor to any particular location to open any aspect of the Web site,” Donoghue said.

Breaking down the unbelievable technology, sensors sprout from the chip embedded in the brain. Those sensors tune into brain signals that typically tell the fingers what to do. This mega-monitoring system then analyzes and translates the signals into intentions, neuron by neuron in real time. The computer then carries out the orders.

Cyberkinetics plans to shrink all of it into a device no larger than a typical pacemaker.

“That would be worn inside the body, and then communicate all the processing information to devices in the outside world,” Donoghue said.

While Brown University was the birthplace of much of the technology, harsh business realities soon became obvious. Other institutions held valuable patents and research acumen critical to finishing the job.

So Cyberkinetics set out to license technology and collaborate with leaders in the field, including universities like MIT, Emory and Utah — an academic network almost unheard of for a tiny, unproven biotech startup.

Within the last year, those connections helped reel in the investment community. The firm raised nearly $10 million of venture capital.

But what about device-making giants like Johnson & Johnson or Medtronic? If the business looks so promising, won’t they soon be jumping in the water?

Don’t hold your breath, says Surgenor.

“They’re generally focused on today’s business, how do they generate revenue, make a margin, deliver earnings to shareholders, and they like to understand these future areas, but they cant afford to invest the kind of time that we’re able to,” he said.

Brooke Elleson is among the millions of disabled persons hoping the BrainGate technology can live up to its promise.

Already dependent on machines when showed what could be “just around the corner,” she was overwhelmed.

“For anybody with a disability, particularly one as profound as my own, independence is really the biggest factor, and that seemed to open up a level of independence that was almost unprecedented.”

Paralyzed in a car accident 13 years ago, Elleson has overcome her disability and is now a few months away from earning a Ph.D. at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

When asked what it would mean if she could think about muscle movement, and if it would happen, she said, “I think about muscle movement all the time and it doesn’t happen. So, if I could generate my thoughts into actual movement — it’s something i’ve dreamed about for 13 years since my accident. And it would be a moment I would cherish forever.

Donoghue believes the news that scientists at Duke University have built a brain implant that allows monkeys to control robotic arms, and he thinks that will bolster the group’s chances for FDA approval of human trials.

And if so, that would move them one step closer to learning whether “turning thought into action” is an idea whose time has come.

(CNBC's Steve Lewis contributed to this report.)