As director at the Wyss Center, Donoghue works in the field of neurotechnology ? brain computer interfaces. While it sounds like the stuff of sci-fi, it's not as distant a prospect as the idea might suggest. Cochlear implants, helping the deaf hear again, are a relatively common example, but Donoghue's work goes a lot further.
The Wyss Center is working on several projects, from developing bionic eyes to restore sight and engineering genes to prevent hearing loss, to using virtual reality to combat chronic pain. The secret to making them a market reality, according to Donoghue, is combining specialists from multiple disciplines to complete a 'pipeline', bringing advanced technology to those who need it most. "I think one of the innovations is the way we've structured the experts," Donoghue told the audience at WIRED Health. "We have this vertically integrated team, so unlike business or academia where people of the same mind tend to work together, here we have neuroscientists, engineers, clinicians, regulatory people and even people from project management and industry that are all working together. They work as a team to help take that idea and bring it forward." "In addition, we're really fortunate to have invested in technology that brings state of the art engineering tools and neuroscience research tools so that we can develop new prototypes and test them in humans. Where we can't do that, we have partnerships in leading industries that we're forming now [so] we know who to go to in order to solve that problem and bring innovation in."
One affliction that neuroscience could help treat is dyslexia. "When [a non-dyslexic] looks at a sentence, their brain sees the words are spaced correctly. What lands on the eye of a dyslexic person is exactly the same ? it's in the brain that this is broken up improperly, so you get a perception of the words in a way that isn't orderly and doesn't make sense, which makes it challenging to read," said Donoghue. "[Researchers at the University of Geneva] found that we have a rhythm in the language centre of our brains, a kind of hum of the brain. Some people think it's like the idling of your car, but it's been hypothesised that in fact this might be the rhythm that helps us break up our words into phonemes, or pieces that make sense to us."
In dyslexics, this rhythm is wrong, running faster. If a device could 'retrain' the brain, stimulate it so that frequency shifts downwards, then dyslexia could be effectively cured in much the same way that spectacles correct vision.
"This is an early stage project, it's just getting underway," he said. "[But] there is a technology where we can now apply brain stimulation from the outside and we can try to oscillate. Do we know it will actively drop the frequency down? No we don't ? but we have the beginnings of a technology and a very solid hypothesis that will help us go forward with this project. And if it's applicable in dyslexia, it might be applicable on a large number of other disorders where perception is disrupted."
A neuroscience researcher for 30 years at Brown University, one of Donoghue's major projects is BrainGate. Early experiments have yielded promising results in allowing paralysed people or stroke victims some restored mobility and communication, but the ultimate goal is to allow them to regain full control of their bodies.
Current recipients, such as Cathy Hutchinson, have bulky robot arms controlled by brain signals sent through an elaborate system of high-speed data cables. This, Donoghue said, is because there was "no way to put this kind of technology inside the body."
In the future the Wyss Center hopes to develop the "world's most sophisticated radio from the brain." Donoghue foresees small, implantable devices sitting on top of the skull, allowing finer control at real time speeds. This is where the collaboration with engineers comes in, with a need for "materials that are safe for people, batteries that you can have under your skin that are safe ? challenges most academics have no idea about." "We expect in two years, we'll have this device in humans," he said, "and an even better version of the device a couple of years after that."
"We're trying to emulate the human brain, make a piece of the brain that's missing or not operating properly, and trying to make technology to replace that. There's a lot of hubris to say that we can do that but I think those two things working together ? engineering and neuroscience ? can give us a new way to do things."
While the Wyss Center has had several successes and breakthroughs, Donoghue is cautious to flag that they're collectively playing a long game, and that there are no quick fixes imminent for affected patients. "We're very frank when we deal with each individual participant in a trial, that we are only promising that we will learn from them, and we have learned tremendously from them, but we can't give them any direct benefit," he said. "It is really an ethical issue not to promise too much. I think there's a lot f hype around neuroscience and understanding the brain, and those of us who [work with] the brain are deeply humbled by how little we really know. We do have to be extremely cautious that these are long term term plans."
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