Mind controls artificial limb

Bionic: A Tennessee man is fitted with a high-tech arm that operates like a real one - by thought.

Medicine & Science

August 09, 2004|By Ronald Kotulak | Ronald Kotulak,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Jesse Sullivan has become a pioneer in a new field of medicine called neural engineering, whose practitioners are proving there is such a thing as mind over matter.

Sullivan, a Tennessee power company worker who lost both arms in a job-related accident, has been outfitted by researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago with a kind of bionic arm, controlled directly by his thoughts.

This extraordinary achievement - one of several breakthroughs nationally in linking mental activity with machines - signifies that the human brain could be poised to make its biggest evolutionary leap since the appearance of early man eons ago.

The first direct brain-computer hookups have already been achieved in paralyzed patients, with limited success. Building on that, Cyberkinetics, a Massachusetts biotech company, has government approval to implant chips containing 100 tiny electrodes into the brains of five quadriplegics this year to see whether their thoughts can operate computers. At least two other research teams are planning similar brain-machine experiments in people.

"I think what we're going to find is that we can help people who are disabled become super-able in a new sense," says Cyberkinetics chief executive Timothy Surgenor. "These people may be able to do things we can't do, like operate a computer faster or do very precise tasks. That's what we're really trying to accomplish. We're not trying to make an incremental change for these people. We're trying to do something that's a breakthrough."

Enter the age of the cyborg

These experiments have ushered science into the age of the cyborg, where the melding of brain and machine, long envisioned in science fiction, is possible. And the research is not just aimed at the handicapped.

"We're getting into sort of a scary field, in a way, that of cyborgs, where relatively healthy people are going to control machines [with their thoughts]," says Dr. Philip Kennedy, of Neural Signals Inc., in Atlanta. In 1998, Kennedy, a former Emory University neurologist, was the first researcher to implant an electrode into the brain of a totally paralyzed patient, who was then empowered to use his mind to slowly spell out words on a computer.

"People are very bad at remembering lots of things and our calculation ability is only fair," he says. "Simple arithmetic is all we can do in our head without having to resort to a calculator. If you've got a tiny chip that you can put in with lots of access points into the brain, then you can enhance the normal memory and the normal ability to communicate."

If it works the way Kennedy and other scientists believe, the two-way brain-machine interface could give people expanded memory and super calculating power. Implanted computer chips might enable people to quickly learn a foreign language and master other tough subjects.

Are such things possible? Not now, but very likely soon.

"I have no doubt that that is the future of those technologies," says Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "We'll see them for safety purposes, learning purposes and enhancement purposes."

Thinking the movements

Sullivan, 57, of Dayton, Tenn., lost his arms on the job three years ago as a lineman for a Tennessee power company.

Doctors first fitted him with a standard plastic-and-metal prosthesis. But it was clumsy and demanded arduous gyrations.

Then last year Dr. Todd Kuiken, director of amputee services at Rehabilitation Institute, prepared to test a 20-year-old dream, an experimental myoelectric arm: a device to transmit instructions from the brain via unused nerves to points outside the body. Sullivan was to think the arm to move.

Sullivan had one important thing in his favor: The memory of his arms and hands remained fresh in his mind, and the neural circuits were still powered up as they had been before the accident. Would the impulses that commanded movement in his missing left arm leap from his brain, travel down his functional but destination-less nerves to the computerized artificial arm and bring it to life?

Sullivan remembers the moment well. It was a cold January day in Chicago, and he was concentrating on getting plastic and metal to react solely to his will: "Think, Jesse, think."

Then it happened. Something moved.

"That was probably one of the best feelings I'd had since I had my accident, when they first put it on and told me to close my hand," Sullivan says. "When I did, this thing closed. This grasper on the end of the arm closed up."

Now Sullivan uses his robotic arm as naturally as flesh and bone. He can do things he couldn't just a year ago - shave, put on socks, weed the garden, water the yard, open small jars, use a pair of handicapped scissors, throw a ball to his grandson. "It gave me part of my dignity back," he says.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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