Science, Not Fiction


Image by Alicia Chen


Students coming into WashU know that our faculty is studded with world-renowned researchers. Once attending the school, however, so many students become engulfed by their classes that these researchers become no more than professors. Behind the syllabi they hand out in prerequisite classes, our professors are truly pushing the frontier of medical research.

Daniel Moran, Ph.D. teaches biomechanics, a sophomore-level course required for all biomedical engineering students. Yet when this professor is back in his lab, Moran develops technology surrounding a topic that may seem straight out of a science fiction movie: mind control.

That’s right. On our campus, in our labs, there are monkeys who can play video games on computers using only their minds, thanks to Moran. If you are not convinced his that this research is sci-fi come to life, when approached about his research, the first thing Moran says is, “Have you ever watched The Six Million Dollar Man or The Bionic Woman?”

“Our goal in the lab is to help paralyzed people,” Moran said. “For them, the problem is the wiring.” Signals in the brain can’t reach the limb due to spinal cord injury, and that disconnect is enough to render their limbs useless. “So we want to develop technology that we can implant in the human brain to figure out what they want to do.”

Moran currently does this using epidural electrocorticography, or EECoG, a new brain-computer interface technique. A grid of disk-like electrodes, surgically placed inside the skull, records electrical signals coming from the brain. Then, the brain’s signals are translated into directions that the computer can understand and execute.

There are challenges associated with the technique. Surgery is invasive, and it can be difficult to get FDA permission to use human patients to develop this technology, even though volunteers are out there. However, in 2006, Moran showed that a young patient, hospitalized for intractable epilepsy and implanted with an electrode array, could be trained to play “Space Invaders” just by thinking about moving the spaceship.

The practical application of this technology is even more “Star Wars”-like. Remember Luke Skywalker’s mind-controlled prosthetic limb? Technologies like Moran’s EECoG will soon be ready for implantation in humans to help them control prosthetic limbs with the dexterity and precision of the real thing.

This is a much greater endeavor. Moving a cursor in a 2D plane on a computer screen involves two degrees of freedom. Moving a robotic arm? Seven. The arm is a complex piece of equipment, after all, and the signals that go into controlling it are even more difficult to decode.

“Eventually, we want to basically reanimate their arms, their own arms, through technology,” he said.

Once brain signals are harnessed, they have to be translated into a signal sent to a peripheral nerve in the paralyzed limb.

“For example, how do you think about going up-and-to-the-left, then convert that into muscle movement?” Moran said.

Studies working to translate this signal to a physical motion are further behind, but Moran’s lab conducted a study in rats, and they are preparing to do non-human primate implant studies too. Once finished, these two technologies can work together to heal paralyzed individuals.

Moran has personal ties to his research as well.

“I had a good friend I played baseball with,” he said. “Both sophomores together, both made varsity together. Then, he slid headfirst into home plate and broke his neck. He’s been in a wheelchair since he was sixteen. So when I walked into my first BME class and they asked us what we were there for, I knew to say: ‘I’m here to make neuroprosthetics for spinal cord injured patients.’”

WashU professors’ lives go beyond the classroom: they are fascinating people. If not research, there is certainly something else they do that is worth asking about. If you haven’t yet, it is time to do a little research of your own and learn more about that professor behind the podium.

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