For millions of heart patients, the pacemaker is an everyday medical miracle. But there's another kind of pacemaker--for breathing. With it, people paralyzed from the neck down and confined to an "iron lung" respirator can regain a measure of independence, aided by automated wheelchairs that they control with head movements or by blowing on special sensors. This implant uses the same principle as its famous cousin: Minute electrical signals stimulate periodic muscle contractions--in this case, in the diaphragm.
The breathing pacemaker is the first payoff from a decade-long international collaboration of researchers led by William H. Dobelle, former head of Columbia University's work on artificial organs. To consolidate the group's efforts, Dobelle recently formed Dobelle Institute Inc. in Glen Cove, N. Y.
The institute's current research is focused on devices to regulate bladder function and alleviate intractable pain. But its long-term goal is to develop artificial-vision technology that allows the blind to see. An experimental implant that receives signals from a video camera and stimulates the brain's vision center enables test patients to recognize simple black-and-white shapes projected on a screen. Dobelle predicts that this technology will be perfected by the turn of the century.