I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for 43-year-old Cathy Hutchinson when she suffered a catastrophic brain-stem stroke in 1996. In one horrifying instant, she became a "locked in" quadriplegic, meaning sensory information still flowed from her body to her brain, but signals from her brain to her muscles were blocked. In addition to her limbs being paralyzed, she was unable to speak.
Thirteen years later, author Jessica Benko met Cathy Hutchinson and delved into her life. Threaded into Cathy's story is a brief history of medical science's efforts to understand how signals are transmitted from the brain to the muscles of the body. Bringing the two stories together, Cathy was one of the first volunteers for the BrainGate project, a pioneering experiment to understand the neurological activity that controlled physical movement.
The author noted that even with the amazing progress that has been made, real advances beyond the laboratory phase are likely decades away. Some experts believe that future technology may take us far beyond artificial limbs that work like the real thing. Think of the avatars in James Cameron's 2009 film, and you get the idea.
"The Electric Mind" is a short read at about 500 Kindle locations, but it was one of the most intriguing articles that I've read in a while.
EDIT: Remarkably, a few hours after I posted my review, I saw that Gizmodo had a short article about a study published in "Nature" today. The article focused on Cathy Hutchinson's role in the BrainGate project.
on September 9, 2012
This was a fascinating look at one person's encounter with the highest of high-tech in a very personal setting. My only complaint is that this is too short; I would love more insight into the ethical questions raised by this technology, the personal insights of using this technology to accomplish tasks that her own body could no longer do, and more insight into the technology itself and the processes used to develop this incredible system.
Cathy had had a massive, brain stem stroke fourteen years ago. She is paralyses except for her eyes and some muscles of her face. Imagine, if you can bear it, that itch you cannot scratc, that longing you cannot voice, the loneliness of a life devoid of perceived touch. To be aware of all the signals of one's body with no ability to act upon them seems the height of cruelty. Perhaps I had not realized sensation would persist into paralysis. One could not even choose to pop a pill into oblivion without outside agency.
The experiments of Brainbox aim to someday restore the ability of the body to respond to volition with the aid of an implant. The story of this research is fascinating. The future applications the stuff of sci-fi. The data paints a panoply of human differential in neural structure. One thing missing is the new research suggesting that movement commences milliseconds before conscious intent. How this would impact the research is intriguing.
What remains is this fascinating woman persisting in the face of many of our worst nightmares. In a world in which one researcher found that a large class of students would all receive a guaranteed safe brain implant to play video games faster, the future seems to be speeding to us at light speed. This is a fascinating glimpse.