Date: 9 October 2004
Source: The Boston Globe

Implant could free power
of thought for the paralyzed

Unable to move, Matthew Nagle can play Tetris, draw
and turn on the TV using the chip in his brain


STOUGHTON, Mass. -- Matthew Nagle played the video game Tetris yesterday simply by thinking, controlling the on-screen action through a tiny chip implanted in his brain, as his paraplegic body sat limp.

The 24-year-old former Weymouth High School football star, his spinal cord shredded during a knife attack three years ago, is a one-man experiment that may one day help to bring movement and a small dose of freedom to thousands of patients trapped by full-body paralysis.

Researchers released promising data yesterday on the BrainGate device implanted in Nagle's head, finding that their sole test subject was able to control an on-screen cursor using brain waves in seven of eight test sessions. But much has happened since scientists recorded that feat: Nagle has drawn computer art, opened e-mail and played Pong as well as Tetris, he said in an interview yesterday. Next up, Super Mario Brothers.

Researchers at Foxborough-based Cyberkinetics hope that, one day, they will be able to connect BrainGate to patients' arms and legs, permitting movement.

"I don't care if I have to use a cane. I'm going to walk. I'm going to do this," said Nagle, speaking softly between gasps and gulps as a ventilator pumped oxygen into his lungs. "I know God has a plan for me."

This is a far-off future: Researchers must still test BrainGate on dozens more patients and then reconfigure it to control limb-moving devices, a complex endeavor that could take years.

Nonetheless, the experiment on Nagle, publicized at a research conference in Phoenix yesterday, offers a wondrous example of progress in helping paralyzed patients. It is the first time a product made by a privately owned firm has produced such a result.

Nagle's journey to this frontier of science began in a moment of tragic chaos on July 4, 2001, at Wessagussett Beach in Weymouth. Nagle recalls a brawl breaking out, his friend under attack, fists flying, someone screaming about a knife. Then everything went black. He had been stabbed in the neck.

The tip of the curved, 8-inch knife remains lodged in Nagle's spine. Nicholas Cirignano, 23, was arrested and charged with assault with intent to murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Cirignano's trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 8 in Norfolk Superior Court. Nagle plans to be there.

His anger fuels his quest to walk: "I'm not going to let (someone) with a knife do this to me."

Though Nagle is feeble and under constant care at his home, a room at New England Sinai Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Stoughton, he retains the gruff manner of his football days, his words pointed and occasionally profane.

Nagle says he can scarcely describe the experiment in which he is taking part. "It's unbelievable," he said.

BrainGate was invented by Dr. John Donoghue, a Brown University professor who is also chief scientific officer at Cyberkinetics. In 2002, Donoghue's lab published a paper in Nature, a scientific journal, demonstrating that unique chips he designed, when implanted in monkeys' brains, allowed the primates to move an on-screen cursor.

A device just like the ones put in monkeys is now in Nagle's brain, and Cyberkinetics is seeking four more patients to gather enough data to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to approve BrainGate for wider testing. The company estimates that it will have to carry out tests on up to 60 patients before winning approval.

A hole was drilled in Nagle's head and the aspirin-sized BrainGate chip was put into his primary motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement. A hundred ultra-thin electrodes attached to the chip pierced his brain, able to detect the electrical signals generated by thoughts and then relay them through wires into a computer.

After a three-week recovery, Nagle was shown a cursor moving on screen and told to think about the direction it moved. The computer attached to the chip recorded the impulses he had when thinking about the cursor moving left, right, up and down. Each direction was associated with a characteristic pattern of signals from his brain. Then the computer was programmed to recognize each pattern and move the cursor accordingly. He thought up; it moved up.

"We're essentially providing a way of connecting his brain to the outside world," said Tim Surgenor, chief executive officer of Cyberkinetics.

The data released yesterday show that Nagle had control in seven of eight tests, moving a cursor to a designated spot, represented during the tests as a bag of money. He also navigated the cursor around obstacles -- bank robbers -- on his way to the money. Nagle was also able to turn off and on a television and control its volume using his thoughts.

What came after, unreported as yet by the scientists, involved more elaborate control on Nagle's part. He was able to manipulate an imaginary paddle up and down in the Pong video game. Just two days ago, he first played with the fast stream of falling puzzle pieces in Tetris.

Nagle is gearing up to play Super Mario Brothers, which would require even more complex movement in a fantastical virtual world. But these are all preliminaries to walking in Nagle's mind.

"It will happen in a few years, I know it," he said.

Nagle was depressed for some time after the stabbing, but he says that despite flashes of anger and sadness, he is coming to terms with his new life. A coterie of friends visits weekly, and Weymouth residents and Cambridge police, colleagues of his father, a former Cambridge chief detective, help pay medical bills.

"If I've learned anything, it's that there's more good out there than bad," he said.

A series of surgeries restored his ability to speak, and he is hoping that another set of procedures will allow him to breathe on his own. Nagle said that participation in the BrainGate experiment will one day help those like him and that his current predicament will remind others of their good fortune to be healthy.

"God uses some people's body to show what life can be like," he said.

and further reading

Thought control?
Brain fingerprinting
First Brain Prosthesis?
The Orgasm Command-Center
Thought-controlled artifical limbs
Electrodes in Brain to Switch Off Pain
The Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator
Wireheads and Wireheading in Science Fiction
Addicted brains; the chemistry of pain and pleasure
Pleasure Evoked by Electrical Stimulation of the Brain

pair of rats