Doctor Puts Self on the Surgery Table to Free Locked-In Patients


Miguel Rodriguez
Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, there was a paralyzed patient named Jean-Dominique Bauby who was unable to move any part of her body. Her mind still worked so she was considered to be “locked-in,” or trapped inside herself with no way to communicate.

She remained this way until Phil Kennedy, “the Father of Cyborgs”, devised a method of connecting the human brain with a computer, allowing the woman to communicate using nothing but a computer and her mind. Today, the same doctor had someone put electrodes in his brain to connect his motor cortex to a computer, with the ultimate goal of creating a brain-to-speech synthesizer.

Let me explain.

As most people know, the brain works by sending out tiny electrical signals, which are translated into an action, such as moving your arm or speaking. This is akin to an 1800s-era battlefield general; the general sends out a runner to deliver a message to his troops, who, in turn, carry out the order. Should these runners, these impulses, not make it to the front line, the whole system freezes and essentially takes no action, no matter how many runners the general sends.

Similarly, if someone gets into an accident and loses the ability to move or speak, it means that there are messages being received even though the brain might still be sending them out.

A great deal of progress has been made in creating technology that allows people to regain control of lost limbs. In 2011, Catchy Hutchinson was able to bring a flash of coffee to her lips and drink its contents by controlling a robotic arm that was wired to her neural network. Named “BrainGate”, the technology would soon be further advanced; now, models of BrainGate have become twice as efficient at interpreting brain signals and translating them into movement.

While the technology exists and is undergoing well-funded research, Dr. Phil Kennedy’s speech synthesizer faces three major problems: lack of test subjects, funding and support of the FDA for his project. Despite the obstacles in his way, Kennedy wanted answers for the questions he had. He set up everything prior to his surgery: funding, overseeing the electrodes that would be put into his head, location of surgery (as the FDA would not allow it within U.S. borders) and even his will in the event that he dies as a result of the neural implants.

The surgery was an overall success, though with a few initial hiccups; he was paralyzed for a brief period of time after waking up. With the initial electrodes in his brain to record his impulses, he returned for a second surgery that would allow additional implants to collect brain signals and have them relayed to a computer. The next few weeks were isolated for Kennedy, as he repeated the same sounds over and over, gathering mountains of data connecting neural impulses to sounds. Eventually, patterns began to appear that Kennedy claims to be “key to developing a thought decoder for speech.”

Sadly, Kennedy had to get his implants removed after a couple of weeks of use because the incisions in his skull never sealed up properly, posing a severe health hazard for the doctor. Despite this, he was satisfied with the month’s worth of data he accumulated, and used the information for a lengthy period of time.

Kennedy’s decision to perform science on himself is just one of many instances in which, in the pursuit of knowledge, doctors have had to use themselves as test subjects. The most well-known example is that of Barry Marshall, who drank a petri dish full of bacteria to prove that this particular strain caused stomach ulcers. His ulcers developed and were thankfully treated, and Marshall earned a Nobel prize. Other notable examples include Giovanni Grassi, who ingested tapeworm eggs to see if people could get tapeworms through digestion, and Evan O’Neill Kane, who removed his own appendix because, well, he wanted to see if he could do it.