By Steve Lewis
SAN FRANCISCO – Once upon a time, brain-machine interfaces were the stuff of science fiction, but not any longer. In fact, in the not too distant future, veterans may benefit from the work of healthcare professionals like Karunesh Ganguly, MD, PhD, of San Francisco VA Medical Center, who is seeking to develop a technology to enable those with permanent disabilities to control their prosthetics by interfacing with their brains.
Ganguly was recently recognized for his work, receiving the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).
“The area of brain machine interfaces has gained steam over the past two decades,” Ganguly relates, noting that the main concept is that, because the brain is a bioelectrical system, there should be a way to interface it with an electronic mechanical device.
“We’re seeking to make life better for veterans with disabilities,” Ganguly continues, noting that his specific research is focused on trying to help patients who have lost control of their upper limbs. Progress has already been made in work with monkeys, says Ganguly, and the ultimate goal is to learn how the brain can truly learn control of these foreign devices.
VA Funds Research
Ganguly says his research in this area began when, as a post-doc fellow, he was funded through a VA Career Development Award (CDA). “This grant came after my residency in neurology, and it was really nice because it allows for 20% of your time to be spent in clinical training and practice and 80% in research,” he explains. “It also allowed for work off-site; through that initial research we have now started an independent lab at the VA Mission Valley facility.”
It was clear from many studies, he continues, that by implanting electrodes into the motor cortex, “on any given day, you can take the system and allow it to control external devices.” He adds, however, that he “was interested in how to make that more robust, to allow long-term integration and not to have to retrain every day.”
Ganguly found that, unlike in earlier approaches, “If you essentially slow down the rate of adaptation, you could improve learning and it would be much more robust in the long run.”
Ganguly notes that the training he received, funded by both VA and the National Institutes of Health, was essential to his understanding of the various aspects of his chosen field of research.
“During my training in neuroscience, I studied how the brain processes external signals — how we learn,” he explains. “Having gone on to medical training, I was able to look into areas where we could apply that to clinical needs.” He then got into more interdisciplinary training in engineering by working with the University of California Berkeley.
“It’s really good that the CDA is a complete appointment for five years, and also that you are able to be based off-site; it allows you to learn from people who are not local,” says Ganguly. “I found the right hospital and the right focus; I’m happy to be part of VA.” This month, he continues, he will finish his CDA and continue his work as a staff physician in the neurology department at the VA.
Working with Veterans
With most of his training in medicine conducted in a VA hospital and with nine years of clinical work, Ganguly says he has gotten a good sense of what and who veterans are. “Having seen many of these patients, I see that veterans have a unique set of problems — partly because of risk factors — and they are very respectful,” he says, adding that it’s “very gratifying” to get to understand their needs.
Ganguly says he looks forward to continuing his research in a field that represents the interface of many disciplines. “I take the best of each and combine them to do innovative things and move forward,” Ganguly explains. “Some people still think it’s not ready for prime time, but there is tremendous potential, and I feel fortunate to be part of a great change in how we work with brain injury and rehab.”
He adds that he’s excited, not only about the technology but also about harnessing the talent at UC Berkeley and UCSF. “There really is potential to take this from the bench to the bedside,” he asserts.
In the future, Ganguly says, he will take his research even a step farther. While 98% of current research involves trying to interface with a normal brain, he is investigating issues about interfacing with brains that have been injured.
“It’s a tremendous effort, but almost the biggest need, with strokes and brain injury being fundamentally different and raising new questions,” he notes.
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