Doctor Had Computer Chips Implanted in His Own Brain to Further His Research

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By Adam Piore | Technology Review

Phil Kennedy no longer saw any other way to get the data. That was how one day he came to lie blissfully unconscious on an operating table in Belize while a neurosurgeon sawed off the top of his skull.

Last year, Kennedy, a 67-year-old neurologist and inventor, did something unprecedented in the annals of self-experimentation. He paid a surgeon in Central America $25,000 to implant electrodes into his brain in order to establish a connection between his motor cortex and a computer.


Related Article: Team Links Two Human Brains Via Internet For Q&A Experiment

Along with a small group of pioneers, Kennedy had in the late 1980s developed “invasive” human brain-computer interfaces—literally wires inside the brain attached to a computer, and he is widely credited as the first to allow a severely paralyzed “locked-in” patient to move a computer cursor using her brain. “The father of cyborgs,” one magazine called him.

Kennedy’s scientific aim has been to build a speech decoder—software that can translate the neuronal signals produced by imagined speech into words coming out of a speech synthesizer. But this work, carried out by his small Georgia company Neural Signals, had stalled, Kennedy says. He could no longer find research subjects, had little funding, and had lost the support of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

That is why in June 2014, he found himself sitting in a distant hospital contemplating the image of his own shaved scalp in a mirror. “This whole research effort of 29 years so far was going to die if I didn’t do something,” he says. “I didn’t want it to die on the vine. That is why I took the risk.”

This fall, Kennedy presented studies of his own brain at the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, where his actions provoked both awe and concern among colleagues. By arranging for surgery on a healthy person—even himself, even in the name of science—he’d likely violated his doctor’s oath. “I’m glad he’s fine now,” says Eddie Chang, a University of California, San Francisco, neurosurgeon whose recent work mapping the areas of the motor cortex that control speech helped guide Kennedy’s calculations. “I hope he gets some precious, precious data.”

Related Article: Jon Rappoport: This Is Your Brain On Neuroscience


FDA trouble

Kennedy, who was born in Ireland, says his self-experiment was driven by frustration and by scientific questions. He was so intrigued by the brain as a young physician that he returned to school to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience. While running a lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the 1980s, he developed and patented an innovative type of electrode consisting of a pair of gold wires encased in a tiny glass cone. Filled with a proprietary blend of growth factors, the electrode induced nearby neurons to grow into the device.

In 1996, after tests in animals, the FDA agreed to allow Kennedy to implant his electrodes into locked-in patients with paralysis so severe they could no longer speak or move. His first volunteer was a special education teacher and mother of two named Marjory, or “MH,” who agreed to undergo the procedure at the very end of her life. Marjory had ALS but demonstrated she could turn a switch on and off just by thinking. But she was so sick that only 76 days later, she died. Next, in 1998, came Johnny Ray, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran and drywall contractor who awoke from a coma with his mind fully intact but unable to move anything except his eyelids.

Kennedy personally oversaw the implantation of the electrodes in at least five subjects, and his team began showing that if it recorded from just a few neurons, patients could move a cursor on a computer screen and communicate by picking words or letters from a menu.

By 2004, Kennedy had implanted his electrodes in the brain of Erik Ramsey, a volunteer who suffered a catastrophic brain stem stroke in a car accident that left him locked in at the age of 16. Thanks to the data collected from Ramsey, Kennedy and his collaborators continued to publish high-profile papers on the results in journals like PLOS One and Frontiers in Neuroscience as recently as 2009 and 2011. One paper described how software could pick out the sounds Ramsey was imagining and allow him to very roughly pronounce a few simple words. Eventually, Ramsey became too ill to keep participating in the research.

By then, the FDA had also withdrawn permission to use the devices in any more patients. Kennedy says the agency began asking him for more safety data, including on the neurotrophic factors he was using to induce neuronal growth. When Kennedy couldn’t provide the data, the FDA refused to approve any more implants.

Kennedy never fully accepted the FDA decision (he took at least one other patient to Belize for an implant). There were also scientific frustrations working with disabled people. Locked-in people can’t communicate, except at times with grunts or their eyes, something that added a confounding variable to his experiments. When a given neuron fired off, he could never be sure what the patient had been thinking.

Related Article: How Your Thoughts Can Change the Structure And Function Of Your Brain

Kennedy became convinced that the way to take his research to the next level was to find a volunteer who could still speak. For almost a year he searched for a volunteer with ALS who still retained some vocal abilities, hoping to take the patient offshore for surgery. “I couldn’t get one. So after much thinking and pondering I decided to do it on myself,” he says. “I tried to talk myself out of it for years.”

The surgery took place in June 2014 at a 13-bed Belize City hospital a thousand miles south of his Georgia-based neurology practice and also far from the reach of the FDA. Prior to boarding his flight, Kennedy did all he could to prepare. At his small company, Neural Signals, he fabricated the electrodes the neurosurgeon would implant into his motor cortex—even chose the spot where he wanted them buried. He put aside enough money to support himself for a few months if the surgery went wrong. He had made sure his living will was in order and that his older son knew where he was.

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17 Reader Comments

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  1. 10153780812785536@facebook.com' Vickie Roark says:

    Oh my goodness….wow….

  2. Anonymous says:

    Ok, hands up anyone who can guess where this ‘research’ is going..!

  3. 10156312957695164@facebook.com' Steev Harrison says:

    Bravery?

  4. 144099595947164@facebook.com' Daniel Cox says:

    Cyborgs, the next step.

  5. 766824656794490@facebook.com' Chhin Hui says:

    Dare to implant on me ??

  6. 10153213910137374@facebook.com' Ramiz Nor says:

    I was honored to meet this guy and his wife in a conference, really inspiring human not only a scientist.

  7. 10206085524950419@facebook.com' Panglima Lima Enam says:

    Too much.we are humans not Droids.can the implant be stable with our own neuro system?or his neuro system already out of order normally.hahaa.

  8. 972625236123454@facebook.com' Erik Albert says:

    Awesome.

  9. 1524525964539407@facebook.com' Mohammed Kamran says:

    God creation wonderful

  10. 948173371870792@facebook.com' Barry Flanagan says:

    He is Borg! Resistance is futile!

  11. 1112856078732349@facebook.com' Colleen McGovern says:

    What I think I should do and what I actually do are totally different. I am Rambo in my mind lol.

  12. 1018966154808448@facebook.com' Imma Lima says:

    Beware,✋✋✋They are trying to sell you transhhu

  13. 1529001367419020@facebook.com' Jade English says:

    Shyla Amber Traerthey finally did it! lol

  14. 10206045713960306@facebook.com' Thomas Chenhall says:

    Dude, there’s these things called electrodes, and they were invented for a reason.

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