Opening Ourselves Up
Neurotechnology researchers and entrepreneurs have been known to make many sacrifices in the pursuit of their goals. Far too many neural engineers have seen their personal fortunes dwindle or years of their productive lives vanish as they continued their relentless struggle to build a successful company or advance brain research.
But perhaps no other neurotech investigator has risked as much as Phil Kennedy, founder of Neural Signals Inc. and a pioneer in the field of brain-computer interfaces. As reported in Wired magazine this month, Kennedy in 2014 elected to offer his own brain for implantation of neurotrophic electrodes he invented and had used previously with locked-in patients. In becoming his own test subject, Kennedy took to an extreme the tendency of some scientists or inventors to place themselves at risk in the pursuit of their goals. His actions bring to mind Marie Curie, whose life was cut short by the radiation she exposed herself to, and Orville Wright, who suffered serious injuries while test flying one of his early airplane models.
Make no mistake, the decision by a healthy investigator to subject himself to medically unnecessary brain surgery seems ill-advised and capricious. But in one respect, it is laudable that a brain researcher and neurotech device inventor of Kennedy's caliber would be willing to subject himself to the same intervention that his patients would experience. It reminds us of the very precious role that neurotech test subjects and clinical trial participants play in the advancement of our field, a role that prompted this editor and Jennifer French to publish the book Bionic Pioneers: Brave Neurotech Users Blaze the Trail to New Therapies in 2014.
We strongly suspect that Kennedy's decision to proceed with the implantation was driven more by scientific curiosity and impatience with the barriers obstructing further use of his device than by lust for publicity or notoriety. Kennedy has been a frequent speaker at our Neurotech Leaders Forum and received the Gold Electrode Award from this publication for Neurotechnology Researcher of the Year in 2013, before we learned of his controversial course of research. His dedication to the goal of BCI phoneme recognition stood out to us then and may well yield unique and valuable insight to one of the most challenging and significant areas of neurotech research in our time.
While we question the brash course of action he has taken, we can't help but appreciate the stubborn attitude that motivated Kennedy. Whether or not the data obtained from this self-directed research leads to a breakthrough in BCI technology, we should be grateful for every subject who has been willing to open up their brain to implants in the pursuit of scientific progress.
Editor and Publisher