A few years ago John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, met Cathy Hutchinson, a young woman who was suffering from locked-in syndrome following a stroke. Until recently, this would have condemned her to a life of helplessness and hopelessness: locked-in syndrome means that somebody cannot move their limbs, even if their brains are functioning normally (as Jean-Dominique Bauby described so movingly in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
But Hutchinson had a dream: she longed to drink a cup of coffee on her own, in one vestige of normality. And Donoghue was convinced he could help. Over the past few years, he has run a project called Braingate that combines the latest advances in computing science, engineering and mathematics with neuroscience, to map the connections inside the brain – and replicate them on a computer.
More specifically, this project uses the impulses that our brains send whenever the body makes a movement – or even just thinks about a movement – to activate a robot, via a computer.
So Donoghue implanted a chip into Hutchinson’s useless limbs. Eventually, this enabled her to use her brainwaves to move her electronic “fingers” to drink her coffee by herself, as captured on a video. “It was a moment of true joy,” recalls the white-haired, bearded Donoghue, who says that he has since helped several “locked-in” patients to send emails as well, also just by using their thoughts.
Welcome to a new realm of cutting-edge science, once just found in futuristic novels – or Hollywood movies such as The Matrix. Back in the 20th century, when scientists were scrambling to apply theoretical breakthroughs in maths and physics, they tended to focus on the tangible world around them. The last century, after all, was a period when scientists learnt to split the atom, send humans to the moon, and develop extraordinarily powerful computing and communication systems.
But these days, the next big frontier lies not in a distant galaxy – but deep inside our minds. For what neuroscientists are now trying to do is use the latest breakthroughs in computing, mathematics, physics and engineering to map how our brain operates, and then replicate this on a computer. If they can succeed in this goal, they could do more than just find ways to produce thought-controlled devices; this may also help them to combat brain diseases. And, for many ordinary people, it is that latter goal which is perhaps most heartening of all; particularly given the rising number of families today (like mine) whose lives have been blighted by modern scourges such as Alzheimer’s.
Sadly, nobody expects that it will be particularly easy for brain scientists to map this new frontier soon. The brain is a fantastically complex organism that contains billions of nerves; analysing it is as challenging as peering into another galaxy. In the past decade neuroscientists have made some progress in uncovering how this three pounds of tissue works: they know which areas carry out some functions, such as speech, and have discovered that brain cells interact with electronic and chemical signals. But what they do not understand is how those interactions occur, or how memories are stored, partly because of the mind-bogglingly large number of cells involved.
What has changed in the past few years is that advanced computing is now giving neuroscientists new tools to handle this extreme complexity. As a result, brain scientists think that their field is now at the same point as research in the human genome was 10 years ago: scientists do not yet have all the answers to how the brain works, but they know the right questions to ask – and what research they would like to do, with those computers and maths programs, if only they had the money.
Will they get that cash? Right now it seems unclear. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama delighted scientists by unexpectedly declaring in his inauguration speech that brain research would be a priority of his second term in office; indeed, Obama likened the endeavour to the 20th-century space race – and dedicated $100m of funds for a new “brain initiative”, that is now being co-run by Cori Bargmann, a charming and highly articulate female neuroscientist based at The Rockefeller University in New York.
Bargmann and others are now creating a road map for research projects that will complement work being done in Europe and Japan. But the cost of this is likely to run into billions, not millions, of dollars. And in the current environment it is not clear that this money will materialise; indeed some research is already being undermined by US budget cuts. This does not deter scientists such as Donoghue: the work with robots is pressing on. But the irony is not lost on some; during the 1950s “space race” America spent the equivalent of $3bn on space research; today scientists can only dream of that. “But of course when America had the space race, nobody had ever heard of sequestration,” grimly jokes one west coast scientist. To put it another way, on paper, brain scientists now have a chance to pierce the next frontier inside our heads; but that will only happen if politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs get serious about supporting research. Or, dare I say it, really start using their brains about how to fund this leap into the future.