The Forest for the Trees
Researchers and clinicians involved with the goal of restoring function to individuals paralyzed as a result of spinal cord injury need all the support they can get. So at first blush, the functional electrical stimulation community might have been encouraged by an article in the October 26 Wall Street Journal about neurotechnology aiding people with paralysis. Unfortunately, the reporter, like so many consumer publication reporters before her, seemed much more intrigued by the possibility that monkeys in the laboratory of Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University might be able to control a virtual avatar than the reality that humans with SCI are regaining function as the result of FES work at institutions like the Cleveland FES Center, research that needs significantly more funding—and attention from the press.
The opening sentence in the article sets the stage for the letdown to come: “Scientists are reporting progress in their efforts to channel brain waves to power mechanical devices, a development that could someday help paralyzed people regain mobility.” This the reporter says as if there were not already many cases of paralyzed people regaining mobility. The short shrift given in the article to FES research might be easier to understand if she had not interviewed Jennifer French, founder of Neurotech Network and herself one of the first recipients of a standing/transfer system developed at the FES Center. Although the WSJ article mentions French’s first-generation system, the reporter seems more interested in Jennifer getting electrodes implanted in her brain than where they’re really needed: in her trunk, her quads, and her glutes. And there is no mention of the new 16-channel system Jennifer is currently testing, which will dramatically improve her mobility in the weeks ahead.
Had the reporter checked out Jennifer’s “Stand by Me” blog at FESCenter.org, she would have learned in great detail about the needs and the concerns of people living with paralysis—and the incredible opportunity presented by FES research and the dedicated and innovative staff at the Cleveland FES Center. What Jennifer and thousands of other paralyzed Americans need right now is not a brain computer interface for her FES system, but better electrodes, implantation procedures, force feedback electronics, optimized stimulation paradigms, power transmission, and a host of other nitty-gritty neural engineering enhancements that institutions like the FES Center are perfecting. And what those research institutions need is more funding from the government, more awareness from clinical professionals, and more understanding from the general public.
It is frustrating to have an article in such a widely read publication as the Wall Street Journal come this close to telling the much-needed story about the potential of FES, but fall so short.
Editor and Publisher