KU researcher's 'neural prosthesis' could help people with brain injuries
Kansas City Star (MO)
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 strokes.
"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," Nudo said.
Eventually, money for their project came from the Department of Defense, which has been looking for better ways to rehabilitate soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.
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 Afghanistan.
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, Carmichael said.
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 abilities.
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 tests.
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