- February 4, 2008

My Davos Moments

I thought I’d share my “Davos Moments” with you, when what I witnessed was so powerful I got chills. One session alone spawned three such moments.

The session was headed by Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neuroprosthetics at Duke. Prior to this session, I didn’t know that neuroprosthetics was even a word. Essentially, it is the ability for your brain to move a prosthetic attached to your body just by thinking about it.

Professor Nicolelis gave us an amazing live demonstration of his work. Via satellite, he showed a monkey named Clementine walking on a treadmill at his lab in Durham. The brainwaves from the monkey were transmitted to a robot in Tokyo. Using mathematical models that replicated electric signals sent by the brain to cause muscles to move, the data were fed to the robot in real time, causing it to walk just like Clementine. In another variation of the experiment, they had the monkey think about walking, which caused the robot, in Tokyo, to walk just as the monkey would. But here’s the clincher—the amount of time it took all of this to occur was 118 milliseconds. That is faster than the time it takes Clementine to send signals from her own brain to her own leg.

Thinking about our soldiers coming home from Iraq who have lost limbs, as well as a 16 year old boy from our hometown who had an accident this summer and is now paralyzed from the neck down and the hope that this research represents for them, literally gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. Meet Miguel and see a demo on YouTube.

That was my first Davos moment.

There were two other professors from MIT on that same panel who are also doing fascinating research in this area and each had equally gripping presentations. One, Hugh Herr, is a double amputee. While still in high school, he was mountain climbing one day, got caught in a storm and contracted frostbite, resulting in the loss of both his legs from the knee down. Since then, he has become a leading-edge researcher and has what he claims is the “benefit” of being able to test his work on himself. Seeing him walk, you would never guess anything out of the ordinary. But during his presentation, he lifted his pant leg and walked through the audience, inviting us all to closely observe how the prosthetic mirrored the complex movement of the foot and leg. It was amazing, eliciting images of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman.”

Hugh’s future plans are to connect his brain to this amazing prosthetic device. This not only includes information flow from the brain to the limb, but also from the limb to the brain. So, when Clementine is thinking of walking, the robot will be walking, but with this new technology, Clementine will also feel like she’s walking. Hugh told us “This year, I’m happy to tell you I can walk – even run – on the beach. Next year, I hope to be able to tell you that I can also feel the sand on my feet.” He went on to joke that: “the last time my brain was connected to my legs, I was a D student in high school. Then, they became disconnected, and I became an MIT professor. Not sure what will happen when they’re connected again – hope I don’t revert to my high school days. Better get tenure first.” And, yes, he still mountain climbs!

That was another Davos moment.

But there’s more. As I was writing this piece, Miguel Nicolelis himself just happened to sit down next to me! He is as genuine and as down-to-earth a guy as you’ll ever meet. We got to talking, and for the next 45 minutes, he gave me a personalized lesson in neuroprosthetics, including a discussion of the mathematical models that explain the neural signals. (Surprisingly, they are actually linear.)

In addition, I learned of Miguel’s aggressive plans – already underway – to build a string of “science cities” all over his home country of Brazil, the center of which will be in Natal, a remote and impoverished area. The vision is that these will be high-quality schools that specialize in science-related subjects, but provide high quality education, often using scientific concepts for learning in all areas, such as the scientific method. The plan is that, over time, these hubs will attract both high-tech companies and research institutions, a concept that is taking hold in several developing countries, and especially across Asia.

You can read more about this in this month's Scientific American, but the idea is to create an environment in Brazil where accomplished students can work and succeed without emigrating to other countries, thereby slowing the brain drain and improving the socioeconomic conditions, and ultimately, improving the quality of life for the people of the students’ home country. Miguel believes strongly that “you don’t need a Ph.D. to make contributions to science, you just need the right environment.” In the last few years, he’s managed to secure initial funding for this project, and 400 students are currently enrolled. His plan calls for 1 million students to be enrolled in a series of schools all over Brazil two years from now. One million students. Talk about “Thinking Big.”

Next: Davos Moment #4

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