Bob Veillette was alert. A thick ribbon of gauze coiled around his shaved head. Underneath the bandages lay the teapot-like spout that researchers hope would be the channel that would capture Veillette’s neural signals and allow him to move a cursor across a computer screen just by imagining it. As Veillette, former managing editor of the Republican-American, recovered consciousness, he blinked out a question to his wife of 42 years. “What were you so worried about?” he teased.
Dr. Leigh Hochberg, principal investigator in the clinical trial, could barely contain his glee. Short and boyish looking, Hochberg speaks with measured precision, often punctuated by blips of nervous laughter. Veillette’s surgery had gone smoothly, he told Bonnie. Although it was feasible to begin testing the sensor that had been implanted on the top of Veillette’s motor cortex immediately, Hochberg wanted to give Veillette’s scalp a chance to heal. Within three weeks, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Brown University, would begin traveling to Veillette’s Naugatuck home, asking him to think about moving his wrist to control a computer mouse. If the surgery was successful, the microelectrodes in the sensor would transmit impulses to a computer, where software designed by the research team would decode them and transmit them to the computer. What happened next could revolutionize neuroscience and life for nearly 5.6 million paralyzed Americans.While there has been considerable excitement this week about technology that allows people who are paralyzed control external robot arms, the technology Thor demonstrated could allow patients to control their own damaged bodies once again.
The human body contains about 100 billion neurons, tiny cells that transfer information and electrical impulses around the body. In a neuron, an electrical or chemical input at one end generates an action potential, or quick voltage change, that throbs down the cell and triggers connections at the other end. In a brain-stem stroke, those messages cannot pass through from the brain to the spinal cord. Since at least 2000, researchers have been trying to harness those neuronal signals, decipher them and carry out the tasks injury or disease has prevented. Researchers are trying to decipher one of humanity’s most impenetrable languages: that of the human brain.
Hochberg wanted to know whether the Veillette sensor could capture neuronal activity that controlled wrist movement. If it could, and, more critically, if computer software could decipher the neurons’ message, the potential was vast..
“If you can communicate, you can do essentially everything,” said Dr. Jonathan Wolpaw, Chief of the Laboratory of Neural Injury and Repair at the Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health. “You can not only have social interactions, but you can control your environment. You can make sure all your needs are satisfied. You could, in principle, drive your wheelchair around. For people who are severely disabled, the ability to communicate can be a major factor in their desire to live.”.
Hochberg had more grandiose ambitions. He was hopeful his “decoder” could eventually connect to a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) device that could move paralyzed limbs directly, something researchers had done with monkeys in 2008. In FES, stimulating electrodes are placed on the muscle or nerve fibers that lead to the muscle. When researchers pass electrical current through these electrodes, they can cause the muscles to contract, even in a paralyzed patient. If Hochberg and his researchers could use their sensor and Veillette’s brain to control a robotic arm, they believed they could use the same technique to drive these stimulating electrodes, causing a patient’s own paralyzed muscles to contract, re-animating their arms or legs.