...Imagine this: you are waking up. As your eyes focus, you see a white-haired man in a lab coat congratulating you on a successful surgery. You are still groggy from the anesthesia and can’t quite remember what happened. The man enthusiastically explains that he is a scientist and that your surgery has previously been performed only on rats and rhesus monkeys. But with the help of a neurosurgeon, it has now been performed on yet another animal—a guinea pig—and that happens to be you.
Before you can gather your thoughts, the scientist makes an odd request: “Could you please turn off the lights?” As you look around the room, you don’t see a light switch. But just as the thought crosses your mind, the lights go off. Smiling, he asks you to turn the lights back on. You think of it momentarily, and they snap on. He smiles again. “The brain implant has worked!”
If this scenario seems like science fiction, I assure you that it has far more science than fiction. In fact, this technology exists today. The scientist is John Donoghue, chair of the Neuroscience Department at Brown University. He, along with his colleagues, has invented an implantable device called BrainGate that allows people to use their minds to control electronics such as computers.
I was introduced to BrainGate when I began my doctoral program in cognitive science at Brown. As I soon learned, the brain uses electrical and chemical charges to communicate with itself and the rest of the body. The idea behind BrainGate is actually quite simple: by tapping in to the electrical charges of the brain, doctors can position them outward to control other electrical devices, in the same way your TV remote allows you to change the channel without leaving your couch. After numerous animal trials (if you imagine monkeys running down the hallowed halls of Brown turning out the lights using brain waves, you will not be far off), BrainGate was approved by the FDA for clinical trials on humans. The immediate goal was to provide more mobility for those with severe dysfunction, such as quadriplegics and Parkinson’s patients.
Once I became familiar with these ideas, I urged one of Donoghue’s students to start a company. That company was quickly funded by a venture capitalist. It started human trials and quietly made its debut on the NASDAQ exchange a few years later. The first clinical trial in 2004 involved a paralyzed man who is now able to control a computer cursor with his mind. The lead surgeon, another professor at Brown, described the results as “almost unbelievable.” I suspect he added the word “almost” out of deference to Donoghue. Four other patients have since been implanted, all with remarkable success. The results were published in the venerable journal Nature in 2006 (Nature had published the animal trials in 2002).
Why does this story sound outrageous? It is mainly because—as the doctor who performed the surgery has said—the idea is too hard to believe. We think of the brain as something beyond our comprehension, so we dismiss the notion that it obeys the laws of science. Here is the way CBS’s 60 Minutes put it when it featured BrainGate in 2008: “Once in a while, we run across a science story that is hard to believe until you see it. That’s how we felt about this story when we first saw human beings operating computers, writing e-mails, and driving wheelchairs with nothing but their thoughts.”
The brain, however, is understandable. It is nothing more than a biological machine.