Professor John Donoghue, Director of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, is at the cutting edge of neurotechnology research. Using the principles behind the BrainGate system he developed a decade ago in the US, he is continuing his mission to restore movement to paralysed patients, as well as branching out into new territory and novel applications.
Thirty years ago Professor Donoghue founded the Brown Institute of Brain Sciences at Brown University in the US. It was there that he and his team advanced neurotechnological research to the point at which they could develop the first BrainGate system. Using a small, multichannel electrode which lies directly on the brain and measures its activity, the team were able to decode brain signals and use them to control the movement of a mechanical arm.
Unlocking the gate
This critical development was widely covered by the mainstream media, and demonstrated the ground-breaking concept that a tiny patch of the cerebral cortex could provide sophisticated command signals. The technology, however, requires further refinement to be practically applicable for everyday use. Wired connections are needed between the electrode implanted in the person’s brain, as is a powerful computer (to analyse the signals), and a mechanical arm (to perform the tasks).
Moving to the Wyss Center in Geneva, Prof Donoghue found himself in an ideal environment to develop and expand the concepts which had led to the team’s progress so far. Established by a generous donation from the Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, the Wyss Center presents a new model in translational neurotechnology research, offering competitively awarded support to accelerate projects that have the potential to make substantial clinical impact.
The Wyss Center’s status as a not-for-profit enterprise has enabled collaborations and attracted projects which would otherwise not have been possible, bringing together high-risk, high-reward ventures which require access to just the sort of specialist technical and business expertise that the Center can provide.
The Center is located at Campus Biotech in Geneva, a research hub which provides a unique collaborative environment and advanced research facilities for scientists and engineers as well as the support and space for business development and start-ups.
With modern computing and data transfer technology becoming ever smaller and more efficient, Prof Donoghue’s goal of a completely wireless system of wearable and implantable devices that can communicate with each other is coming closer to reality.
Working on the basis that neurotech solutions to the needs of people with paralysis must be easy to use, the Wyss Center is working alongside the BrainGate team in the US to develop a miniaturised version of the BrainGate system that can be placed inside the body. Signals from an electrode on the brain will be communicated wirelessly to a belt-clipped analysis computer the size of a mobile phone. This will, in turn, communicate with electrodes which will stimulate nerves to activate muscles in the arm. With basic training, the patient can then begin to regain control of their limbs. Functional electrical stimulation, as it is known, of arm muscles under brain control was demonstrated earlier this year by the BrainGate group and published in The Lancet. The challenges of miniaturisation and making the system wireless, however, are still in the process of being solved.
Spans across fields
While developing this novel approach to the treatment of paralysis, the team has uncovered basic but fundamental concepts around how the brain communicates and perceives sensory input. This new understanding of neurobiology and how it can be melded to technology has opened the doors to many more applications in this field.
One such area is the treatment of severe tinnitus, a constant ringing sound in the ears which can be terribly debilitating to sufferers and which, like paralysis, has limited treatment options available. It has long been known that a specific area of the brain, known as the auditory cortex, is often responsible for the generation of this high-pitched whine.
The Wyss Center team is working on the development of a system that would use a flexible electrode placed on the skull beneath the skin to record the activity of the auditory cortex. These signals would be relayed from a unit worn externally, behind the ear (much like a hearing aid), to a smart phone where the aberrant activity could be monitored. By enabling people to visualise their own brain activity, they can also learn to regulate the activity.
Completing the loop
The long-term goal of the project is to help people with tinnitus reduce the activity of their own auditory cortex. The individual sees the activity of their auditory cortex on their smart phone and then performs a basic task on the phone to change the signal using only their mind. In this way they learn to control their own brain activity, and reduce the abnormal activity which results in tinnitus.
This sort of real-time monitoring and modulating is termed ‘neurofeedback’, and has the potential to impact on a variety of neurological conditions, from improving visual attention to treating dyslexia.
From science fiction to science fact
This merging of neuroscience and engineering may seem like science fiction, but for the researchers at the Wyss Center it is the way forward in dealing with the complex issues that clinicians face when treating brain disorders. Prof Donoghue is a leading researcher in this field and considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of the merger between neuroscience and cybernetics.
With his wealth of experience ranging from the investigation of mechanisms underlying
neurological control systems, to neurotech translation and start-ups, Prof Donoghue is well placed to lead this sort of venture. Recognising that this is a unique time and place for this research he says: “I see this as the next phase, the time when all the pieces of the neurotechnology jigsaw fall into place”.
Drawing parallels with the rapid development of mobile phone technology, he believes now is the beginning of a similar revolution in neurotechnology. His aim is to “take truly innovative neurotechnology ideas from the lab and accelerate their transformation into useful products that clinicians can use to help people with nervous system disorders”.
The pace of technological advancement is staggering and the Wyss Center has a clearly effective model for translational research and development. This gives new hope to those suffering the debilitating effects of these conditions, for whom such quantum leaps cannot come soon enough.
What have been the highlights of your long career in neuroscience?
I have been excited each time a person with paralysis has been able to accomplish new and more useful tasks – from cursor control to moving their own arm. In one of the studies we published from our work at Brown University, a woman who had been paralysed for more than a decade used our BrainGate system to control a robot arm that reached out and grasped her morning coffee. We saw her serve herself a drink for the first time in ten years. That was amazing both for her and for me.
What makes the BrainGate system so unique in the field of cybernetics?
The BrainGate system, as we developed it over the years, is currently the only system that detects and decodes brain signals for movement intention and translates them into signals that can be used to control a robot arm and now even a human arm. While there are others extending our research, all are using the same fundamental components created by the BrainGate project – the brain sensor, decoding concepts, and processors. In a recent study led by Case Western Reserve University, our BrainGate technology was used to enable a paralysed man to move his own arm with brain controlled muscle stimulation.
How does the Wyss Center differ from other collaborative institutions?
The Wyss Center has a unique model to translate neurotechnology. The Center provides interdisciplinary industry and academic expertise, access to state-of-the-art device development facilities and funding to support neurotechnology projects that have the potential to make a real impact on the lives of people living with brain or other nervous system disorders. We aim to de-risk adventurous, disruptive neurotechnology concepts and make them more attractive to investors and industry so that they can be of real clinical use to the people who need them.
What are the main challenges still to overcome in bringing this technology into practical use?
There are many neuroscience and engineering challenges involved in developing devices that are basically replacement parts for a malfunctioning nervous system. Some of the big challenges are developing sealing techniques to ensure that ‘smart’ electronics placed inside the body will be leak-proof and able to work for many years. Another practical problem is to make sure the devices always run. Typical medical device batteries do not have the power needed to process then send huge amounts of information wirelessly from the brain to other assistive technologies outside the body. This is much more complex than a cell phone, which is already a remarkable device.
Where do you think the next frontier in cybernetics and neurotechnology will be?
We are working at the frontiers right now. I think the next challenge, once we have created miniaturised, implantable, wireless devices, will be to make the entire system work in synchrony with the body. We want to enable paralysed people to walk down the road, sip a coffee or run in the park so that no one would ever know that they have a neurotechnology device making it happen. That will be the next frontier, helping man and machine work seamlessly together.
- Research Objectives
Professor Donoghue is one of the most recognised researchers in the field of neuroengineering. His current research aims to restore limb functions for sufferers of paralysis. He now leads the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering where translational research ranges from seeking effective treatment for sufferers of tinnitus to enhancing rehabilitation after stroke and solving dyslexia.
Following his Master’s degree in Anatomy from the University of Vermont (1976) and PhD from Brown University (1979), Professor Donoghue has enjoyed an illustrious career as a neuroscientist. He is best known for his work on ‘BrainGate’, for which he received the first Israel BRAIN prize in 2013.
Professor John P Donoghue (Director)
Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering
Chemin des Mines 9
- Building bridges between mind and matter