Being connected through our smart phones is being taken to a new level due to the research by a US university–based biomedical engineering research team that has developed a brain implant system to help those who have lost control of their limbs, or other bodily functions.
The “neuroprosthetic” device – a tiny electrode implanted into the brain creating a brain-computer interface – has been effectively used to enable people suffering severe paralysis to perform important daily functions through their thoughts alone. It is hoped that the research will ultimately see severely paralysed patients thinking what letters/words they would type on their smart phone or computer, and via the neuroprosthesis those letters and words get typed.
Thanks to a $250,000 gift by the Movement Disorder Foundation, a Medical Research Scholarship has been offered by the University of Wollongong to PhD student Michelle Newbery, enabling her to participate in this ground-breaking research and bring back to Australia the knowledge and skills that promise to change the lives of those with physical disabilities.
Michelle will spend up to a year working closely with BrainGate researchers at Brown University, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, USA, on the work they are doing in functional electrical stimulation.
On returning to Australia, she will spend the remainder of her time on the scholarship completing her research at UOW, working closely with leading neuroscience stem cell researcher and electrophysiologist Dr Lezanne Ooi and soft robotics expert Professor Geoff Spinks.
Michelle completed a Bachelor of Medical Biotechnology from UOW in 2018 and finished with first class Honours and was named a Dean’s scholar – an accolade awarded to the brightest students that perform at the top of their class throughout their studies.
This new medical research scholarship is in addition to the Movement Disorder Foundation Scholarship Fund that finances undergraduate scholarships to assist students with physical disabilities in their pursuit of tertiary education opportunities at the UOW, and to make lasting impact in their professional lives. By so doing it is anticipated that these Movement Disorder Foundation scholars will make contributions to help others with physical disability in the broader community.
Associate Professor Roland Bigg, chairman of the Movement Disorder Foundation, is a firm believer in giving back, and believes this scholarship will open up a great opportunity for Michelle by working at such distinguished US institutions, and with the BrainGate researchers at Brown University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the main teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School.
“Australia benefits not just from the research link to the USA medical institutions of excellence, but also the link means that if there is a treatment breakthrough, Australians should be able to access the new treatment more readily,” A/Prof Bigg said. “The Movement Disorder Foundation philosophy, strongly advanced by the Board, is to support research that is collaborative. It is also anticipated that Australian researchers, like Michelle, Lezanne and Geoff, and their team, will accelerate the research progress via this collaborative research effort, and thus it is hoped that valuable new treatments for those with severe disability will come sooner rather than later”
A/Prof Bigg’s ideology was inspired by his late uncle, Peter Hains, who lived with severe cerebral palsy.
“He spent a lot of his early years in hospital, when they tried to do tendon transplants to relieve his spasticity. In those days they didn’t have the treatments that are available today. So he had a pretty miserable early life. [It was] back in the days when parents weren’t allowed in hospital when kids were hospitalised, so I imagine he had a pretty traumatic early existence,” A/Prof Bigg says.
“I will always remember his words to me, on being with him one night when he had yet another of the many falls that characterised his life. When he recovered he said to me: `You know, small things are big things to those that don’t know what big things really are.’
“For me personally, to see how difficult it was for my late uncle to navigate the world, I can also see how it can be made easier for those with physical disabilities with the research that is happening now.
“What we see already with BrainGate is not something we would have conceptualised as possible a few year ago. When I was a medical resident doing a rotation term at Royal North Shore Hospital it was my responsibility to catheterise patients with quadriplegia, and I remember thinking at the time ‘We can put a person on the moon but we haven’t been able to solve paralysis and I wonder if we ever will’.
“Yet in my lifetime we have seen great breakthroughs. A severely paralysed quadriplegic patient in Cleveland recently used a BrainGate brain implant, to drive, by thinking, a functional electrical stimulation implant in his arm, to be able to eat using his paralysed hand without assistance. We couldn’t conceptualise what we see now even 10 years ago, so one can only imagine what could be possible 10-15 years out. But with talented researchers both at the UOW and in the USA, the future looks bright,” he added.
Thus there are high hopes that the scholarship makes a big difference, not just for the scholar and the research, but for people with movement disorders or neuromuscular disabilities worldwide. A major goal of this novel collaboration will be to move this research forward towards a neuroprosthesis clinical trial in Australia.