PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] – Imagine being paralyzed, unable to move your arms or to walk again. An estimated four to five million Americans suffer from this debilitating situation. Or imagine being mostly blind, or mostly deaf. Conservatively, tens of millions of Americans are affected by these infirmities.
Now imagine being able to stand up and walk, to move your hands or arms enough to tap out an e-mail on a computer, or to see and hear again. These advances are no longer in the realm of imagination. They are real-life examples of bionic-like repairs scientists can make to the human body.
Like mechanics peering under a car’s hood, researchers in the emerging field of neurotechnology are learning more about how the human central nervous system works. They understand more clearly how the brain sends signals that cause muscles to twitch and arms and legs to move. They are peering more intently into the inner workings of the eye and ear and are developing devices that can replicate broadly how they work.
The technologies they have created – the implants, the probes, the electrical stimulators – are benefiting real people now. Some of those people, and the scientists who helped them, will tell their stories at the Frontiers of Healthcare Conference, to be held June 9 from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Salomon Center for Teaching, located on the Brown University campus. The Division of Biology and Medicine at Brown University and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-RI) sponsor the conference, now in its fifth year. This year’s theme is “Neurotechnology: From the Lab to Everyday Life.” The $25 conference fee includes lunch.
There also will be a short press conference featuring Kennedy, the scientists and the individuals who have benefited from neurotechnology.
“Neurotechnology isn’t science fiction – it’s here today,” says John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience and engineering and director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science. “Devices that connect to the nervous system are already helping those with paralysis to move again, those with blindness to see and those with deafness to hear.”
This year’s format will pair patients and specialists in the following disciplines: cochlear (ear) implants and retinal (eye) prosthetics; spinal cord injuries; deep brain stimulation; and paralyzed rehabilitation. The moderator is Joe Palca, science correspondent for National Public Radio.
“The scientific efforts to change human lives for the better will be demonstrated by this panel of scientists along with actual individuals who live with that science every day,” said Eli Y. Adashi, M.D., dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown. “That’s where current research in the neurosciences stands today. It is obliterating boundaries between biology and technology.”
Kennedy has introduced a bill – the National Neurotechnology Initiative Act – that aims to accelerate the development of new and safer treatments for Americans living with a brain-related illness, injury or disease.
“Tens of millions of Americans are suffering from a brain-related disorder,” Kennedy noted. “The brain is too complex an organ to simply look at piece by piece, disease by disease. We need to study the whole brain. I believe by connecting and coordinating neuroscience research across federal agencies, eliminating duplication and creating greater efficiencies, we will improve the quality of our research and accelerate discoveries, thus saving lives.”
The keynote address will be given by Col. Geoffrey Ling, M.D., a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a professor and vice chair of the Department of Neurology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Ling’s research focuses on brain and spinal cord injuries, particularly those relevant to the military. His address is titled “Restoring the Injured Warfighter.”
Donoghue will open the conference, outlining broadly what neurotechnology means and the latest advances in the field. Adashi and Kennedy will deliver welcoming remarks.
The panel discussion will consist of four interviews, moderated by Palca. They include:
Cochlear Implants and Retinal Prosthetics
- Mark S. Humayun, M.D., professor, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California
- Michael M. Chorost, author, Rebuilt: How Becoming a Part Computer Made Me More Human
- Benjamin D. Greenberg, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, Brown University
- Gerry Radano, mental health advocate and author, Contaminated: My Journey out of OCD
- Mario Della Grotta, Rhode Island patient who was the first in the United States to undergo deep brain stimulation surgery for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Andrew Cappuccino, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, Buffalo Bills
- P. Hunter Peckham, Donnell Institute of Biomedical Engineering and director, FES Center at Case Western University
- Jennifer French, co-founder and president, Neurotech Network
Registration is required and space is limited. For enrollment details and a complete agenda, visit bms.brown.edu/news/frontiers
Media should register in advance by sending an email to Richard_Lewis@Brown.edu or by calling (401) 863-3766. Credentials can be picked up in the lobby of the Salomon Center the day of the event. Press check-in is required.