Health care researchers aim to harness signals



BOSTON — Researchers trying to overcome diseases and defects in the body are looking at a number of different approaches, from the mechanical to the electrical.

Presenting last week at the annual meeting of the Asso­ciation of Health Care Jour­nalists, researchers from institutions around Boston presented a number of intriguing approaches in various stages of development.

In the BrainGate II project, researchers want to create a brain-computer interface that would allow them to read neural signals from motor areas of the brain and convert them to move an object, in this case a robotic arm.

The project was inspired by patients such as a young mother who suffered a devastating stroke to her brain stem that left her “locked in,” able to think but unable to move or speak, said Dr. Leigh R. Hochberg, a vascular and critical care neurologist at Mas­sa­chusetts Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal and an associate professor of engineering at Brown University.

“She essentially had a disconnection of a perfectly intact brain from a perfectly intact body as a result of this stroke,” he said.

The goal would be to get those signals out of the brain to perform some useful function, such as type, use the Internet or use a text-to-speech program, Hochberg said.

“The real dream for the research, at least for people with brain stem stroke or cervical spinal cord injury, would be to one day reconnect brain to limb, take these signals out of the brain and root them back down to stimulating electrodes elsewhere in the nervous system, basically creating a fairly simple but electronic nervous system through neurotechnology and allow that person to reach out and pick up a cup of coffee again,” he said.

A short video showed the patient in a wheelchair hooked up through a computer to a robotic arm that picked up a bottle with a straw and tilted it to her mouth, allowing her to slowly drink.

“That is the first time in over 15 years she was able to serve herself anything,” Hochberg said.

The slow drink is followed by a big smile.

“She’s clearly happy,” Hoch­­berg said. “We were happy.”

On a more basic research front, the way electrical signals can help jump-start the regeneration of a tadpole’s tail could have implications for humans.

An African clawed frog will regrow a severed tail within eight days, said Dr. Danny Adams, a research associate professor at Tufts University. Using a gene that can be light-activated to become a kind of cellular battery, researchers were able to electrically kick-start the regeneration process and the tails grew back in two days.

“Yes, it is Franken­stein­ish,” Adams said. “But we think in a very good way.”

Humans can regrow fingertips until age 10. All cells communicate electrically, and those signals are important in wound-healing, which is similar to regeneration, Adams said.

Hundreds of approved drugs manipulate these signals, and there is a clinical trial looking at implanting batteries to help spinal cord regeneration, she said.

“Not only is there tremendous potential for trying to learn to manipulate the electrical signals, but I think it is a lot closer to translation than a lot of things,” Adams said.