Last month, President Obama announced an initiative to study the human brain. One of the researchers on the working group for this project hails from Utah.
Richard Normann begins every morning at his University of Utah office by making a cup of espresso. Like so many of us, the morning routine and the caffeine jolt helps to get his brain cells firing. But he knows a little more about this than most people. 25 years ago he invented an electrode device that can be implanted into a human brain. It was the first of its kind and is capable of allowing researchers to listen to a group of neurons communicating with each other. Previously people used single wires and could only hear the signal of one or a small number of neurons.
"But the way the brain works is not by individual neurons telling the body how to move," says Normann. "The brain works by large numbers of neurons working in concert to achieve a certain end and you're never going to understand what is the spatial and temporal pattern of neural activity with a single wire, a single electrode."
Already Normann's device, which contains 100 electrodes, has helped researchers to better define epilepsy, identify patterns of neuron activity that delineate speech, and even control the movement of a robotic arm by a paralyzed patient using only her mind.
Two groups of researchers have so far achieved this goal. One of those stories was told last December by Scott Pelley on 60 minutes. He profiled Jan Scheuermann who is paralyzed from the neck down due to a degenerative disease. A group at the University of Pittsburgh implanted two of Normann's electrode arrays onto the surface of Scheuermann's brain and closed up her skull leaving two computer connections on the outside.
When they hooked up her brain to a computer, five months later, Scheuermann was able to move the robotic arm and hand in all directions, and was even able to shake Pelley's hand. "That is just the most astounding thing I've ever seen," says Pelley.
Normann and his colleagues are themselves using the Utah electrode array, which is now sold by the local company Blackrock Microsystems, for many projects. One goal is to help amputee patients not only control a robotic arm and hand, but also to let the patients feel the things they touch through sensors in that hand. Because amputee patients retain active nerve fibers in the stump of the arm, the Utah group is working to place the electrode arrays in the arm, rather than in the brain.
"My ultimate fantasy, and I don't think it's much of a fantasy, is a person who would be fitted with such a prosthetic arm and hand, would no longer think of this as a piece of hardware hanging on the end of their amputation," says Normann. "I think they would begin to think of this as their arm and hand."
Achieving these rather remarkable feats in prosthetics and other brain-related fields are due to decades of progress in mapping the nerves in the arm and in the brain, says Normann.
"We know where the senses of touch are, the motor parts of the brain which tell our body to move in space, where the visual parts of the brain are, the auditory parts of the brain. We do know where these rather large global areas of sensory, motor parts of the brain and cognitive parts of the brain." He adds, "But, that's about as good as it gets."
Normann says there is still much that needs to be discovered including how the brain produces complex thoughts and behaviors.
"The real bottom line basic question is consciousness," says Normann. "What is it about this collection of large numbers of neurons, that when working in concert, produces our ability to be aware of ourselves? That's an unbelievable question that we are still kind of in the dark about. So there's a lot of basic understanding that needs to be gotten about how the brain works."
And that's one of the goals of the BRAIN initiative, which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Normann is one of 15 members of the working group that will be meeting over this summer to identify promising areas of study. He says they are on a fact-finding mission.
"The goal of this group I think, is to look at existing technologies, hear about others peoples thinking about new kinds of technologies that could be used to address these problems," says Normann. "And to have a better sense of how we could begin to solve these more complex problems over the next decade."
Identifying ways to develop new sets of tools for recording neuron activity in the deepest and hardest-to-reach parts of the brain might be one of their aims. As well as figuring out ways to research new interventions for brain disorders. But Normann cautions that this will take money –
much more than the $110 million dollars currently proposed for the initiative.
"Perhaps the best outcome is that we might be able to get a bit more money from our congress to support the area of neuroscience as it's been identified by Obama as being one of the great challenges of this decade," says Normann.
He adds that this would be a better approach than shifting existing funding away from other promising research. The working group is scheduled to deliver an interim report about their findings at the end of the summer and a final report next year.
Ross Chambless was the editor for this story.
Conflict of interest disclosure: Julie Kiefer is an employee with the Brain Institute at the University of Utah, where some of this research is being done. She did not contribute to this story.