“Brown is our major league franchise,” Providence Mayor Angel Taveras declared at his May press conference with Ruth Simmons, the university’s president. “Brown puts us on the map, not only in the United States but around the world.”
There’s no better evidence for that than this article in Wednesday’s edition of the Financial Times, the salmon-colored bible of the global financial elite. Clive Cookson, the London paper’s science editor, writes about advances in the use of electrical signals on the brain that “promise to transform the pharmaceutical industry.” His best evidence:
Perhaps the most remarkable was a recent US clinical trial in which tetraplegic patients used their thoughts to direct robotic arms. The research team, led by John Donoghue and Leigh Hochberg at Brown University, released a video of a 58-year-old patient called Cathy, whose mental activity drove a robot to pick up her drinking bottle from a nearby table and move it up to her mouth so that she could sip some coffee. …
Still, there will never be a mass market for personal robots – or even prosthetic limbs – controlled by tetraplegics. So Prof Donoghue and his colleagues are working on a second generation system, BrainGate 2. This would send signals from the brain to a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) device, bypassing the injury that blocks the natural transmission of nerve signals and stimulating the patient’s own paralysed muscles to contract on demand.
Brown overhauled its technology transfer office in 2009 with an eye on moving these sorts of breakthroughs from the lab to the marketplace. (Cookson’s article also brings to mind Patrick Kennedy, who’s made brain research – at Brown and elsewhere – a major priority in his post-congressional career.)
Update: A regular reader notes, somewhat depressingly, that Professor Donoghue’s first effort to market the BrainGate technology (through a startup called CyberKinetics) failed.