Jan. 26--It's long been the stuff of science fiction: computer chips implanted
in your brain to enhance your physical and intellectual powers.
At Randolph Nudo's lab at the University of Kansas Medical Center, it's a step
closer to reality.
Nudo, a brain researcher who directs KU's Landon Center on Aging, and electrical
engineer Pedram Mohseni of Case Western Reserve University have developed an
implant the size of a quarter that bridges gaps in damaged brains to restore
communication between different parts of the brain.
In a dramatic experiment, brain-injured rats equipped with this "neural
prosthesis" were able to reach their front paws through a gap in a plastic glass
window, similar to a miniature teller's window, to successfully snatch pellets
of food. But when researchers switched the implant off, the rats batted clumsily
at the pellets and rarely grabbed one.
Although its use in people may be a decade or more away, experts already are
calling the neural prosthesis a technological breakthrough that may change the
course of research to assist the 1.7 million Americans who suffer traumatic
brain injuries and the hundreds of thousands of people a year who survive
"This is definitely something very cool, very, very interesting," said Leonardo
Cohen, a senior neuroscience researcher at the National Institutes of Health.
"It really creates a pathway into the brain. This is definitely a breakthrough."
Nudo and Mohseni first met in 2006 at a science conference, where they
discovered they shared the same idea for a neural prosthesis.
"It was an idea a bit out in left field, so it took some time to get it funded,"
Eventually, money for their project came from the Department of Defense, which
has been looking for better ways to rehabilitate soldiers with traumatic brain
More than 266,000 members of the military suffered brain injuries from 2000 to
2012, many from the concussions of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and
Brain injuries now require long periods of intense physical and speech therapy
that aren't always fully effective. Nudo hopes a neural prosthesis will shorten
the time it takes to recover and make recovery more complete.
Enhancing the brain with electronics isn't new. Cochlear implants in the inner
ear have been restoring hearing for decades. Electrodes implanted deep in the
brain deliver electrical impulses to calm the tremors of Parkinson's disease.
And in 2008, scientists showed that monkeys with chips implanted in their brain
could direct robot arms to feed them marshmallows, an accomplishment that could
lead to advances in prosthetic limbs.
Nudo and Mohseni's neural prosthesis is the first device designed to repair the
wiring of the brain itself. It has two sets of microelectrodes, as fine as human
hairs, connected by wires to a microprocessor chip and a watch battery. The
experimental prosthesis sat on top of the rat's head. The version for people
would fit inside the skull.
In their experiment, Nudo mapped the rats' brains and then surgically
disconnected parts of the brain that control movement of the rats' forelimbs.
The injury disrupted the rats' physical sense of where their forelimbs were.
The electrodes of the neural prosthesis were implanted in each of the divided
sections of the brain. When neurons in one part of the brain tried to send
electrical signals, they were recorded by the prosthesis, which cleaned the
signals of "static" from other brain signals and transmitted it to neurons in
the other part of the brain.
Within two weeks of receiving the prosthesis, the rats were able to grab food as
well as they had before their brains were injured.
"I'm not ready to use the term 'neural solder' yet, but we're getting there,"
Nudo said. "Neurons that fire together wire together. We're artificially
creating that situation."
Nudo already is expanding his research on the prosthesis. He has a Defense
Department grant to do a similar study with monkeys. He also will be testing the
effectiveness of the device on rats with spinal injuries.
S. Thomas Carmichael, a neurologist and neuroscientist at the David Geffen
School of Medicine at UCLA, called Nudo's neural prosthesis highly innovative.
Carmichael said it may prompt other researchers to follow his lead and look for
ways to repair damaged circuits within the brain.
But there are numerous hurdles before this becomes a useful medical device,
The prosthesis has to be made small and durable. And researchers have to figure
out which brain injuries respond to the prosthesis and how best to implant the
device and program its computer. Even if further testing proves that the
prosthesis is an effective therapy, it may be 10 to 15 years before it's widely
available, Carmichael said.
Nudo's "work has opened a door, and we've stepped through it. Now we have a
decade of questions to deal with," Carmichael said.
Twenty years from now, it may be commonplace for people to have implants in
their brains, Nudo said. They may be used to correct speech problems caused by a
stroke or to control the symptoms of psychiatric orders. Implants will become an
ethical issue, he said, if they can ever be used in normal brains to enhance
Nudo gave the example of a power hitter who tries to gain an edge by getting an
implant to improve hand-eye coordination.
In the future, professional athletes may get brain scans along with their blood
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