Three other implantees have also died, and T.T., who was implanted in 1999, deteriorated so quickly hecommunicated only nine months.
Kennedy, who has won $1.7-million in grants, mostly from the National Institute for Health, intends to keep implanting. He's got government permission to implant five more patients, and plans to get permission for as many more as he can. He foresees a patient bearing 10 or more electrodes, strategically placed at points in the brain that dictate speech and movement, who will overcome the communication barrier and the mobility barrier as well.
"We've passed the threshold," he says.
The technology is only in its infancy — so much so that most people are unaware of its potential or even existence. It has piqued the government's interest, however. The president's Council on Bioethics, which was formed in part to address human cloning and stem cell research, has indicated it won't take up BCI technology any time soon.
The council's chairman, Leon Kass, spoke recently about cloning — but his remarks regarding ethics are indistinguishable from concerns over BCI. "I remain enthusiastic about biomedical research and its promise to cure disease and relieve suffering," Kass told the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Health in 2001. "Yet, as has been obvious for some time, new biotechnologies are also providing powers to intervene in human bodies and minds in ways that go beyond the traditional goals of healing the sick, to threaten fundamental changes in human nature and the meaning of our humanity."
BCI's ability to make a smarter brain is one "fundamental change" that may alarm Kass. The U.S. Department of Defense, which is now funding some BCI research, appears less concerned. In the same way that Einstein's breakthrough research advanced science that benefits mankind and contributed to the creation of nuclear weapons that threaten mankind, BCIs could give birth to an uneasy tension between technology for the sake of medicine and technology for domination.
"In 20 or 30 or 50 years down the road," Kennedy says, "you're going to give power to people who really shouldn't have it."
One thing's for sure. The brain of the future is on the way, and it could arrive more quickly than neuroscience imagined.
In the late 1980s, Kennedy, who was running a lab at Georgia Tech's Biomedical Engineering Center, was trying to solve what irked him and other neuroscientists studying electrode implants: The brain bobbed too much to keep it firmly in place. Electrodes implanted in monkeys swayed with every step. And no matter how close to a brain signal the electrode was placed, it could never pick up the signal consistently. "I thought, 'The technology is just not right,'" Kennedy recalls. "'It's just not adequate enough for the job.'"
But what if he were to implant a far simpler design, a hollow cone of glass, a millimeter-and-a-half in length? Would the neuron (a cluster of brain cells that dictates specific body functions) wrap its arms (called neurites) around and inside the cone, cushioning it from the bobbing? And would the electric signal traveling along the neurites be easier to pick up if a conductive gold wire or two were laid along the cone's inner walls?
Kennedy first tested the electrode on rats, with promising results. He then applied for a patent, got permission to set up a small lab at Emory's Yerkes Primate Center and implanted the electrodes in monkeys. They worked, and his discovery set him apart from the half-dozen other groups working on similar research. He began planning a business, of which he would be CEO, named Neural Signals.
Fellow neuroscientists were skeptical.
"People thought it was ridiculous," Kennedy says. "Two pieces of wire and broken glass? That will never work. So I got no funding."
He returned to Emory to do a residency in neurology, so that he could make a living practicing medicine and work on his less lucrative electrode on the side.
As the residency was winding down, Kennedy appealed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow him to try his electrodes on humans. In 1996, the FDA said yes. It was his simplicity of the design that won the agency over. No other design had captivated them, and none has since.
In December 1996, Emory neurosurgeon Roy Bakay implanted the first of Kennedy's patients to receive the electrode. He identifies her only as M.H., a former special ed teacher who suffered from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
"Locked-in syndrome" is the medical term used to describe someone who, like M.H., has lost the use of his or her body but whose brain remains intact for decades. It is the scourge of stroke and spinal cord injury, as well as Parkinson's disease and ALS, the syndrome afflicting the famed physicist Stephen Hawking.