After considering dozens of projects from around the world, Israel Brain Technologies, an organization dedicated to establishing Israel as a center of global brain technology and related research, awarded its $1 million dollar B.R.A.I.N. (Breakthrough Research And Innovation in Neurotechnology) prize to a team of US researchers. The BrainGate team, led by John Donoghue of Brown University, has developed a system that reads brain signals and transmits them to limbs, enabling patients with degenerative physical diseases like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) to move their arms and hands, and manipulate objects.
The award was presented Tuesday at the first-ever International Brain Technology Conference, Braintech 2013. The award ceremony was the highlight of the two-day event in Tel Aviv, where presentations and discussions on all things brain — from neuroscience to DNA to behavioral sciences to drugs — were on the agenda. Highlighted were areas like neurotechnology, which many scientists believe will be an area of strong growth in the coming years, as researchers close in on how to manipulate the brain to treat diseases like depression and Alzheimer’s, and change our daily lives through brain-machine Interfaces and brain-like computing.
BrainGate’s technology implants electrodes into the brain to read impulses that are then sent to a computer, which decodes them and allows them to operate a prosthetic or external device. The team has used the technology on numerous patients, including those suffering from “locked-in syndrome” — an inability to move or speak, despite being fully awake and alert and having full mental capacities.
Decades of research (the early technology was originally developed by a now defunct company called CyberKinetics), said Donoghue, showed that groups of neurons work together to allow movement, and the use of sensors to read these neuron signals allowed even patients who were paralyzed and had lost control of their limbs altogether to perform such relatively complicated tasks as using a prosthetic to reach out, grab a cup of coffee and drink it — just by thinking of those actions.
That an American team won the first prize to be distributed by Israel’s “brain trust” made US Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa) very happy. Fattah, a Congressional champion of research and funding for brain-related diseases, believes that without a major effort to develop brain therapies, the economy of the US and other Western countries will be in jeopardy.
“More people than ever have Alzheimer’s, and the population is getting older,” he told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of Braintech.
“I met with Japanese officials recently, who said that in a few years, a third of their workforce is going to have to quit work to stay home and care for elderly relatives with brain diseases,” said Fattah. “Under such conditions, their economy will collapse, and eventually all Western countries with aging populations will face similar dilemmas. We need solutions,” he said, and teams like Donoghue’s are helping to supply them.
It’s for that reason, Fattah said, that the US will spend $5 billion on brain research in the next few years. “But we already spend annually $500 billion on care for mobility challenged people, $205 billion on Alzheimer’s-related care, and so on.”
Spending $5 billion on brain research is, he quipped, “a no-brainer for a society that wants healthier citizens, and a healthier economy.”
Fattah also gave the keynote at the IBT conference.
“The White House has made it abundantly clear that this conference is a priority,” he said. “The President [of the United States] said that brain research will be a superior among equals. We are going to map the brain. The EU has made a decision to do this as well. We need to work together to make the progress we want to make. We are going to host a meeting in Washington, DC, in which we are going to take the work of Israel Brain Technologies, the EU and the US and have a meeting of the minds.”
President Shimon Peres, who was the inspiration behind the formation of IBT and the B.R.A.I.N. prize, personally presented Donoghue and his BrainGate colleague Dr. Arto Nurmikko with the award.
Speaking during the ceremony, Peres told the audience that brain technology will revolutionize our lives.
“The brain is illustrious… The greatest hope is that we should begin to understand how our own brain functions…The first question we ask ourselves is… how to make Israel a center of brain research. Where is Israel strong? There are five domains in brain research. We found out that Israel is strong in two of them: one, the interface of brain to computer and the other, the therapy of the brain.”
Accepting the award, Donoghue thanked Peres and the judges – which included Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Bert Sakmann – and described the technology to the audience.
“The biggest thing that we at BrainGate have accomplished is that we can now ‘read out’ the brain,” said Donoghue. “That means that among other things we can reconnect the brain to the outside world for severely paralyzed people who have no way of getting thoughts out to the world.”
“This is an international prize that establishes Israel at the center of the neurotech community, while giving recognition to researchers from all over the world,” said Rafi Gidron, founder and Chairman of IBT. “The prize reflects the goal of IBT, which is to bring international brain technology to Israel and at the same time, bring Israeli brain technology to the world.”
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