same type Courtine used in the monkeys.
Made of silicon, and smaller than a postage stamp, they bristle with a hundred
hair-size metal probes that can “listen” as
neurons fire off commands.
To complete the bypass, the Case
team, led by Robert Kirsch and Bolu
Ajiboye, also slid more than 16 fine electrodes into the muscles of the man’s arm
and hand. In videos of the experiment,
the volunteer can be seen slowly raising
his arm with the help of a spring-loaded
arm rest, and willing his hand to open
and close. He even raises a cup with a
straw to his lips. Without the system, he
can’t do any of that.
Just try sitting on your hands for a
day. That will give you an idea of the shattering consequences of spinal cord injury.
You can’t scratch your nose or tousle a
child’s hair. “But if you have this,” says
Courtine, reaching for a red espresso cup
and raising it to his mouth with an actor’s
exaggerated motion, “it changes your life.”
The Case results, pending publication in a medical journal, are a part of a
broader effort to use implanted electronics to restore various senses and abilities. Besides treating paralysis, scientists
hope to use so-called neural prosthetics
to reverse blindness with chips placed
in the eye, and maybe restore memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease (see “ 10
Breakthrough Technologies 2013: Memory Implants”).
And they know it could work. Consider cochlear implants, which use a
microphone to relay signals directly to
the auditory nerve, routing around nonworking parts of the inner ear. Videos of
wide-eyed deaf children hearing their
mothers for the first time go viral on the
Internet every month. More than 250,000
cases of deafness have been treated.
But it’s been harder to turn neural
prosthetics into something that helps paralyzed people. A patient first used a brain
probe to move a computer cursor across
a screen back in 1998. That and several
other spectacular brain-control feats
haven’t had any broader practical use.
The technology remains too radical and
too complex to get out of the lab. “Twenty
years of work and nothing in the clinic!”
Courtine exclaims, brushing his hair back.
“We keep pushing the limits, but it is an
important question if this entire field will
ever have a product.”
Courtine’s laboratory is located in a
vertiginous glass-and-steel building in
Geneva that also houses a $100 million
center that the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg
Wyss funded specifically to solve the
remaining technical obstacles to neuro-technologies like the spinal cord bypass.
It’s hiring experts from medical-device
makers and Swiss watch companies and
has outfitted clean rooms where gold
wires are printed onto rubbery electrodes
that can stretch as our bodies do.
The head of the center is John
Donoghue, an American who led the early
development of brain implants in the U.S.
(see “Implanting Hope,” March 2005) and
who moved to Geneva two years ago. He
is now trying to assemble in one place
the enormous technical resources and
talent—skilled neuroscientists, technologists, clinicians—needed to create commercially viable systems.
Among Donoghue’s top priorities is a
“neurocomm,” an ultra-compact wireless
device that can collect data from the brain
at Internet speed. “A radio inside your
head,” Donoghue calls it, and “the most
sophisticated brain communicator in the
world.” The matchbox-size prototypes are
made of biocompatible titanium with a
sapphire window. Courtine used an earlier, bulkier version in his monkey tests.
As complex as they are, and as slow
as progress has been, neural bypasses are
worth pursuing because patients desire
them, Donoghue says. “Ask someone if
they would like to move their own arm,” he
says. “People would prefer to be restored
to their everyday self. They want to be