Brain Power

The power of the human brain to help someone with spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D) connect with the world and even fly a plane got the 2017 Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Summit + Expo off to a strong start Tuesday morning in National Harbor, Md.

By Brittany Martin

Paralyzed Veterans of America Summit + Expo attendees listen to speakers Tuesday at the Gaylord National Harbor Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. (Courtesy of PVA)

Justin Sanchez, PhD, director of the biological technologies office at Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), gave a plenary session on his group’s latest advancements in neurotechnology to roughly 900 attendees at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. The research arm of the Department of Defense, DARPA is in charge of creating new technologies for security, but Sanchez detailed how their research is also changing the future of human-machine interfaces and its potential to help people with SCI/D.

“It’s not just the technology itself that changes the world. It’s how the people of the world use the technology that DARPA develops,” Sanchez says. “It’s how they take it to the next level, it’s how they incorporate it into their everyday lives. It’s how they really look at that technology towards the future and really embrace all that it has to offer.”

In the case of someone with SCI/D, Sanchez says neurotechnology can free the brain from the body and allow people to live fuller lives. In that spirit, DARPA is working through various platform technologies.

One platform DARPA has used since the early 2000s is the Utah Array, which has sensors that can be placed in or on the brain and allows researchers to stimulate and record neurons in the human brain or peripheral nervous system. That input can then be used to reanimate limbs, virtual limbs and prosthetic limbs in patients with paralysis.

Justin Sanchez, PhD, director of the biological technologies office at Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), spoke to roughly 900 attendees Tuesday at the Paralyzed Veterans of America Summit + Expo at the Gaylord National Harbor Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. (Courtesy of PVA)

“This is the conduit through which the brain can actually escape the confines of the body and actually interact with the world in a whole new way,” he says.

Sanchez gave the example of a patient who had a cervical SCI. He had the Utah Array implanted in his motor cortex and sensory cortex, allowing him to not only move a robotic arm with dexterity but to feel pressure and even fly a virtual plane.

“[He] really was able to change his perspective of the world, and for those of you living with paralysis, you know how confining it can be,” Sanchez says. “Imagine how technology like this can really open up your world and change your perspective of the world.”

Another example Sanchez gave was a patient who had both arms amputated and who, through a neural interface implanted in his peripheral nervous system, could feel a virtual door opening.

“This is very much a story of hope,” Sanchez says. “This is a story of how we can use advanced technologies in very creative ways for people who need them most.”

Building on the Utah Array, Sanchez says DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory Program has significant implications for veterans who’ve lost brain functions because of injury. DARPA has tasked the research community with developing the hardware and the knowledge base to connect neural interfaces to the memory centers of the brain to facilitate recall of facts and events.

In an early proof of this concept, a study was conducted on a woman with epilepsy, a condition with memory loss as a comorbidity. She was given targeted brain stimulation to remember a list of 12 words. Before the stimulation, she could only recall three words. After the stimulation, she remembered all 12 of them.

Moving into even further complexity of brain function, DARPA’s SUBNETS Program focuses on developing neurotechnology to treat neuropsychological illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Sanchez says the neurotechnology available now could even make it possible in the future for an architect with paralysis to control virtual drafting software through a neural interface or allow people to play in a virtual world and experience that world in a richer way. In addition, a neural interface could someday help people capture and share details of memories that are starting to fade.

“We’re not daunted by the challenges associated with it,” Sanchez says. “We hit it head on and we say, ‘How fast can we actually go to deliver real technologies to real people that are living with these kinds of dysfunctions?'”

Sanchez says there are ethical, legal and social implications to consider in using these technologies in both the clinical and consumer environments.

“Will neurotechnology as I’ve described it to you today be as common as laser eye surgery or getting braces? I don’t know, maybe,” Sanchez says. “Will there be a gap between those who have access to neurotechnology and those who don’t have access to neurotechnology? What I find really intriguing is those with paralysis may be the first to embrace neurotechnology. Those may be the larger set of users of neurotechnology in the future, and I really wonder how that’s going to play out. Or at some point in the future will neurotechnology be more considered a right than a privilege? I don’t know … answering all of those hard questions is really a question for all of us.”

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