For decades, sci-fi writers have explored the potential and perils of combining man and machine. Now we’re finding out what such a future truly holds. A team at Mount Sinai West medical center in New York placed a 1.5-inch-long device known as a stentrode into the brain of a patient who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and couldn’t speak or move. Weeks after the surgery, the patient could communicate: The implant monitors neurons that are firing and translates that activity into commands sent to a smartphone via Bluetooth. The procedure built on previous efforts in Australia, where Synchron implanted four patients with devices they’ve used to send WhatsApp messages and make online purchases. Years later they report no ill effects.
Tom Oxley, a physician with a doctorate in neuroscience, spent years developing the stentrode with his team, working to make the cylindrical web of wires relatively easy to implant. Surgeons needn’t drill into a patient’s skull; instead, they can make an incision in the neck and feed the stentrode via a catheter through the jugular vein into a blood vessel inside the motor cortex. The catheter is then removed, and the stentrode opens up and fuses with the outer edges of the vessel. Synchron intends to add 16 people to its trial and aims to eventually help those suffering from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, strokes and other conditions.