Friday, November 14, 2008

Brain Power

When I was eleven years old, one of my cousins had an aneurysm which left him a quadriplegic. He had been in medical school, was an avid mountain climber, and an outstanding violist. He had had some non-specific neck pain for a couple of days, and one night, it was bad enough that his mother took him to the hospital. The short story is that he went to the operating room with the hopes that the aneurysm could be repaired but woke up paralyzed, on a ventilator. This really impressed me, as he could speak, but he had to use a computer to write, using his tongue to move a cursor. Ever since then, I have been afraid of a similar thing happening to me, especially after learning about multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a few years later. Of course, when I was a first year medical student, I had every disease we learned about, including MS and ALS! Fortunately, I survived intact.

For those of you who may not know what ALS is, it is a rapidly progressive and always fatal disease which attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary motor function. Eventually, the upper motor neurons (those in the brain) and the lower motor neurons (those in the spinal cord) stop working, so messages do not get transmitted to muscles, and the muscles eventually shrink and waste away. Oddly enough, most patients retain control of bladder and bowel function, eye muscles, and the senses of smell, taste, hearing, and touch. Usually patients die within three to five years from the onset of the diagnosis, although approximately ten percent live for ten or more years. For more information, I found the website from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to be very informative.

These memories of worrying about various illnesses came back to me last week when I watched the CBS news show, Sixty Minutes. There was a segment called, "Behind the Scenes: Brain Power" ( which just blew me away. It focused on a neuroscientist by the name of Scott Mackler from the University of Pennsylvania. He was diagnosed with ALS, and the disease has progressed to where he is ventilator-dependent and unable to speak. However, he is now able to communicate using Brain Computer Interface Technology, which basically allows a person's brain to be connected to a computer using EEG electrodes attached to a cap which is placed on his skull. So, in order to write a letter or to speak, Dr. Mackler looks at a computer screen with flashing letters, and the computer writes the letter that he is thinking of. Absolutely amazing!! The neuroscientist who was "locked in" by his disease now can write journal articles and goes to work in his lab where he conducts research. The story also talks about a woman, Cathy, who suffered a brain stem stroke which left her only able to move her eyes and with some facial expression. She volunteered to participate in a clinical trial where the Braingate system was implanted directly into the motor cortex of her brain. Cathy is able to move a cursor on a computer screen by thinking about how she would move her hand; she is able to turn off lights, for example, using this technology.

Advances in the science like this are always so exciting to me. Yes, I'm a nerd, I know. But the potential for this Braingate technology is limitless, and there are so many people who could benefit from this. Obviously, it would be even better if we could find the causes of neurodegenerative diseases so that we could prevent them, but even if we did, it could be used for stroke victims, accident victims, and many others. I am concerned that with our healthcare system in shambles, along with our economy, that funding for research will be cut, but I hope that our amazing, creative, dedicated science community can continue to thrive somehow.

1 comment:

hi mik1986 said...
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