“The idea of an idea,” is a phrase spoken frequently in college philosophy courses and subsequent sessions to the local pub, where the discussion can continue with the perfect blend of intellect and intoxication. It tangents from humanism to sciences — do ideas make us human? How does the brain develop an idea? Why are some people more imaginative, more prone to concocting innovative ideas, than others? An intricate web, with one question bleeding into another and very few concrete answers landed on by the end of the night. Philosophy and humanism; neurology and artificial intelligence.
While immersed in these parameters of understanding and creativity, Dr. An Do comes up with an idea of his own.
After graduating from a joint medical school program between UCLA and UC Riverside, Do made his way to neurobiology training at UC Irvine. From there, he became a clinical instructor in neurobiology. Throughout his research, one question stood prominently in his mind, a question that dominated the world of neurobiology, to which a whole community of researchers are seeking a solution: “How can we restore motor functions for paraplegics?”
In 2007, Dr. Do had a potential answer.
Aided by his DIY electronics understanding, Do began to develop his prototype of a brain-computer interface (BCI) system that would, hopefully, restore motor functions for people who have suffered from spinal cord injury (SPI). Essentially, his idea was to create some device that serves as the missing link connecting brain signals to nerves, a link damaged as a result of SPI. With the connection restored, paraplegics could think about walking and their legs would respond appropriately. When the person thinks about walking, the electrodes detect a specific pattern of brain waves and then send it to a nearby computer, which then controls the electrical simulation that allows the subject to move their legs. As opposed to a machine controlling the person, the person controls the machine.
Diving into this new research, Do came across a book about biomedical engineering that cited Dr. Zoran Nenadic — a doctor who had experience in BCI research and worked at UCI. Dr. Do sent an email immediately.
“When I first heard of BCI, I just loved the idea. I thought it was the best science idea I’ve heard for a while,” Nenadic said. “[In college,] I studied control theory and this is a way to apply control theory to something that is useful.” His face beamed at the memory of his foray into this thrilling synthesis of engineering and biology.
In the summer of 2014, Adam Fritz, paralyzed from the waist down since 2008, heard about Do and Nenadic’s study. He signed up to be a potential test subject, eager to turn his disability into a chance to help others.
Months of testing ensued, to ensure that Adam was the proper age, injury type and physicality. Do and Nenadic’s team needed someone with a healthy bone density, weight, range of motion and proper responsiveness to electrical stimulation. In the end, Adam was the most qualified of those who volunteered, beginning a mammoth series of experiments and training, without a real clear end goal in sight.
By September 2015, however, their months of research and experiments culminated into a four-minute video of Adam’s first steps.
Adhesives and wires stick out of Adam’s legs, controlling the electrical stimulation of his muscles; a skull cap helps connect dozens of electrodes to his scalp for detecting brain activity; a ten-pound fanny pack houses the bioamplifiers that allow his brainwaves to be projected with enough amplitude for the desktop computer to read them. Not to mention the harness and the walker. All this in order to take ten wobbly steps.
His only instructions are to think. As long as he thinks about the act of walking, the desire to put one foot in front of the other and just go, then the machines, professors and his own body will do the rest.
Dr. Nenadic says this is what makes UCI’s BCI research so significant; no other prosthetic allows for the user’s own willpower to operate it, forgoing the need for external crutches or robotics attached to the limbs operated by levers and buttons. All unnatural, inhuman scenarios that makes walking feel abnormal. Through electrodes and wires, Nenadic and his team restore Adam’s human agency.
“I want to move, so I’m moving,” Adam said.
Adam’s first step causes a lab-wide exhalation. It’s shaky, yes, but it’s there. He has made forward progress. Hands gripped tight around the walker, he keeps his body angled slightly forward to lessen the weight his legs need to support. His feet slide and hover and cement themselves onto the linoleum while his head remains tilted downwards. Here, staring at his feet is not a sign of introversion.
Rather, Adam keeps his eyes on his feet because, despite all these electrodes, monitors and sensors, Adam still has no sensation from the waist down. So, as he takes his first steps in eight years, he has no tactile awareness of the ground beneath him. All he feels is the shock-and-impact sensation traveling up his legs as he slips across the linoleum until the wheeled office chair glides toward him once he reaches the end of the tape, letting him sit and look twelve feet behind him. There, Nenadic and Do stand at the starting line with eager smiles strewn across their faces and eyes wide with disbelief and pride.