The year is 1964. A Spanish man stands in the middle of a bullring in Córdoba, Spain amidst a crowd of eager onlookers waiting for the “bullfight” to begin. Mechanically, the man waves the proverbial red cloth, enticing the bull to charge. This particular bull had been bred to be extremely aggressive. As the bull races towards the cloth, the man quickly grabs what appears to be a remote control and presses two buttons. Almost immediately the bull slows to a halt, turns away from the cloth and runs in a different direction towards the edge of the ring.
This man, a neuroscientist named José Manuel Rodríguez Delgado had implanted electrodes into the bull’s brain prior to his display in order to show off his newest invention, the stimoceiver. In the ring the stimoceiver was used to send electrical impulses to the bull’s caudate nucleus (which controls motor processes in the brain) in order to force the bull to stop and walk away. Not one to sit quietly, José had a knack for making a spectacle of his research and he had this entire event filmed, which can be watched online today.
José Delgado wasn’t just a scientist, he was a dreamer. He envisioned a future where his electrodes would be used to interpret, change and improve humans’ thoughts. In 1970, during an interview by the New York Times he said, “the human race is at an evolutionary turning point.
We’re very close to having the power to construct our own mental functions…The question is, what sort of humans would we like, ideally, to construct”. His dream of programming the human race was bucked off as societal backlash began to mount. Many claiming that if his scientific ideas came to fruition, it would infringe upon human integrity and freedom. Additionally, for many years after the bull ring display José received letters from people all over the world claiming that he was controlling their thoughts, in what could be interpreted as trolling in the pre-internet era. In the end, José messed with the bull and got the horns.
In the decades that followed, scientists with less ostentatious research goals seemed to gather more funding and José never entered the ring again. By the 1990s, scientists were quickly finding ways to analyze wide scale brain activity to predict which areas of the brain would be most active before an action takes place. This could be anything from moving an arm to speaking. Around this time a confident neurologist, Dr. Phil Kennedy, invented what is called the neurotrophic electrode. Shaped like a cone, this glass apparatus allowed him to leave wires inside the brain for long periods of time to record electrical activity. This breakthrough technology is what allowed Dr. Kennedy and his colleague Roy Bakay to help a locked in patient operate a computer with his mind.
The patient, Johnny Ray had been fully paralyzed from a stroke and was only able to answer “yes” and “no” questions by blinking his eyes. For months, Dr. Kennedy and Bakay analyzed Ray’s motor cortex activity using the neurotrophic electrode, prompting Ray to imagine speaking or moving certain areas of his body. After decoding the patterns of electrical signals that were buried in a cloud of unrelated “noise”, Dr. Kennedy and Bakay had taught Johnny Ray to use his eye movements to spell out words on a computer screen. This brought them worldwide acclaim and Dr. Kennedys research was celebrated for years to come.
After trying the same thing on a few other locked-in patients with no success, many of them dying from unrelated complications, he became restless. At the age of 66, after three decades of dedicated brain computer interface research, Dr. Kennedy found himself out of research subjects, his FDA funding had run dry and interest in his research seemed as quiet as his own locked-in patients. With nowhere else to turn in 2014 he decided to take matters into his own hands, or more specifically, his own head.
Out of his own pockets and into his brain, Dr. Kennedy decided to put himself under the knife to further his own scientific pursuits of a speech prosthesis. A short flight to Belize and one 11-hour surgery later Dr. Kennedy awoke after a successful surgery, in which his own neurotrophic electrode had been inserted into his brain. The surgeon held up his glasses and asked Dr. Kennedy, “what are these?” and all Kennedy could muster to say was, “Uh … uh … ai … aiee.” It appeared that he himself had become brain damaged. With little sympathy from his fiancé, Dr. Kennedy sat in the hospital for days with no improvement, the more he tried to talk the more he seemed to get locked up.
Amazingly he quickly began to recover and within a month he was back to his research. Quickly, Dr. Kennedy realised that he needed another surgery to continue his personal experiment and that same year he flew back to Belize. This time he had a power coil and radio transceiver added to the wires already inside his brain. Once he returned home, he began gathering data. To do this he balanced a magnetic power coil and receiver on his head and began to record his own brain activity while he said different phrases to himself out loud, like, “the joy of a job makes the boy say wow”. While some scientists like Dr. Kennedy are looking inside to create speech prosthesis, others are looking outside.
Neuro-engineers from the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University have managed to create a system that can translate human thought into recognizable speech. Utilizing the power of neural networks (artificially intelligent computer systems that mimic neuronal activity in the brain) and a vocoder (speech synthesizer) these scientists were able to reproduce words based on the thoughts of individuals with 75% accuracy. This experiment is in its early stages, but in the future, this could be used to help individuals with ALS, locked-in syndrome or other disorders impacting speech production. With research in this area plentiful, it is just a matter of time before mind over matter is a reality.