Science Hero   (2016Apr13)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016                                              2:44 PM

The human cost of science, particularly medical science, is often overlooked. When I saw the recent NY Times Science article about a man who had a chip implanted in his brain that allowed him to move his paralyzed hand, my first thought was, ‘How thrilling—we’re actually getting into electronic-brain interface on a very practical level’. The last thing I thought about was the man.

But as I read the article, I found out some things about this guy. First off, he had to recover from a freak accident that left his hands and feet paralyzed—months of rehab were required before he was able to go home—and then only to be cared for by family—still being virtually helpless. That kind of trauma can take someone out of the fight, all by itself—many people’s reaction to such tragedy is to stay in bed until the end of forever.

Then, having learned of this experimental project, he had to volunteer for elective brain surgery—then he had to convince his family to accept it—no easy task. Try telling your mother that you want to get unnecessary brain surgery—right after suffering a paralyzing accident.

Then he describes the enormous effort, hour after hour, of concentrating on trying to move fingers that were no longer connected to his brain—waiting for the scientists to calibrate the software that decrypted his brain signals. As he learned, the signals changed—so re-calibration was required for every session. He likened it to sports training—which, if I remember high school football training, means repeating efforts to the point of exhaustion, day after day. And while he’s training, he’s got a port cable sticking out of the back of his head, plugged into a computer—not exactly comfortable.

Now, after extensive training, he can pour liquid from one container to another—and other feats of dexterity. But when the training’s over, the plug is unplugged and he goes back home, helpless and paralyzed again. And that’s not all—the program is complete now. The scientists are shutting down the program and they’re basically done with him. The experiment was a success, but we are still years from something a person like him could wear and use in daily life.

By the time I finished the article, I was less impressed by the tech—I see it now as a story about an unsung hero of science. See for yourself: