The Force Within Us

Christopher Reeve’s relationship with the media has proven to be something of a double-edged sword for neurotechnology professionals, as we discuss in our accompanying article. While Reeve has given a lot of credit to his activity-based rehabilitation, which includes functional electrical stimulation sessions, he has never been as strong an advocate for neural prostheses as he has been for other approaches to neurological disorders, which include stem cell therapies, biotechnology and drug-development efforts, and spinal cord regeneration research.

This is unfortunate, given the high profile that the actor and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation have with the media, the patient community, and legislators. The foundation’s Paralysis Resource Center, located on the web at, contains a host of information on research and resources for people with paralysis, but says practically nothing about some of the most promising applications of neurotechnology for treating spinal cord injury.

This attitude is not uncommon, however. In an interview with the New York Times last week, Willem Kolff, the inventor of the artificial kidney and the leader of the team that built the first artificial heart, spoke of the resistance he encountered with those early devices. One doctor at Presbyterian Hospital in New York refused to employ the artificial kidney. Residents would have to refer patients with renal failure to other hospitals. Later, when Kolff was developing the first artificial heart, he encountered a high-ranking official of the National Institutes of Health in the men’s room who told Kolff, “I hope the artificial heart will never work.”

This bias against all things bionic might be easier to understand were it not for the public’s seeming fascination with breast implants, nose rings, nipple piercings, and ab stimulators. Perhaps the only problem with functional electrical stimulation is in the nomenclature. If we called it “Totally Useless Electrical Stimulation,” or “Fashionable Electrical Stimulation,” maybe the public would take more notice.

Also puzzling is the large extent to which the general public and clinical communities are willing to view pharmaceutical approaches as cures, despite the host of side effects, drug-resistant populations, and ongoing costs associated with these treatments. To many of these people, an implanted neurotech device would never count as a “cure,” no matter how seamlessly the device coexisted with the natural nervous system.

Still, we should not be slow to recognize the glass half-fullness offered by people like Christopher Reeve. His message of hope and perseverance, his willingness to stand up to the entrenched medical belief that people with paralysis should just accept their fate, his potent arguments with political conservatives who would squelch key areas of medical research, these attributes should give us all reason for encouragement.

Perhaps we could do no better than to find other Christopher Reeves who have more to say about things like functional electrical stimulation, neuromodulation, neural prostheses, and medical devices, but can say it with the passion and the clarity that he exhibits.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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