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'The Brain Electric' Proves Mind Control Is Not So Far Off


One day in 1996, Jan Sherman's life changed forever when she knelt down to pick something up. Suddenly, she couldn't move her legs. Soon, she couldn't lift her arms either. She developed a mysterious neurological illness and in three years' time, she went from fully healthy to completely wheelchair-bound. Here's writer Malcolm Gay.

MALCOM GAY: Jan lost complete control of her body below the neck. She then went through a severe depression. At one point, she said she was suicidal it was so bad.

MARTIN: After a while, though, she heard about a scientist who was working on technology that could help people like her move again.

GAY: She eventually came to Andrew Schwartz at the University of Pittsburgh. She underwent brain surgery, had two electrode units placed in her brain and for two years, was working three days a week with Andrew Schwartz on this research.

MARTIN: The goal of the research - basically mind control. Schwartz wants someone like Jan to be able to simply think about moving her arm and to have that thought transmitted to a real robotic arm to carry out the motion. Jan could just think her way to shaking your hand or browsing the Internet or talking with a robotic voice box. Turns out there are a handful of scientists locked in a race to build this kind of technology. And that's the focus of Malcolm Gay's new book, "The Brain Electric."

GAY: There are three top labs. They are competing for government funding, they are competing for intellectual prestige and they are competing ultimately, you know, for the grand prize of really liberating the brain.

MARTIN: You know, you got these scientists, these ego-driven, super ambitious people who are trying to create this breakthrough technology. And then you have the patients who are, in some cases, desperate to get their hands on this kind of technology that could change their life. Do the patients and the scientists always see the process the same way as it's unfolding? Do they always have the same aims?

GAY: Well, it's funny. When Jan was first implanted, she had seen someone else do this. And her first thought was, oh, my gosh, I've got to do this. Why wouldn't I do this? And then she goes through, has brain surgery and wakes up with this wicked headache. But then, after she recovers, she shows up at the lab with Andy. And Jan, who has a sense of humor to her, is wearing a mouse ears and a mouse tail that's flowing off of her wheelchair. And she - everybody says, well, what are you doing? What is that? And Jan's response is, I'm a lab rat, get it?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GAY: And everyone in the room kind of bursts out laughing at this super corny joke except Andy. And Andy, dead serious - Jan says, Andy, why aren't you laughing? This is funny stuff. Andy says, I don't think of you as a lab rat. I think of you as a partner. And...

MARTIN: But he was sensitive to it. He wanted to make sure that...

GAY: He was extremely sensitive to it.

MARTIN: ...She didn't feel that way.

GAY: Precisely.

MARTIN: So Andy Schwartz and his patient - partner - Jan Sherman end up winning this so-called scientific race. What were they able to achieve that the other teams were not?

GAY: Well, I would say they won this stage of the race, is what I would say (laughter). It is ongoing. What Andy was able to do with Jan was to establish 10 degrees of freedom within the arm. She was able, at one point, with me actually, to beat me at a game of rock, paper, scissors. She was able to feed herself chocolate. She was able to...

MARTIN: Moving a robot that was not attached to her in any way.

GAY: Moving a robotic limb that was controlled by her mind. Other researchers, they've done similar research studies. What Andy was able to do was really create and show that complex freestyle movement was possible with a brain computer interface.

MARTIN: What are the implications of this for Jan and other people like her?

GAY: Well, that's one reason why Jan, I think, and everyone that I profiled in the book is - are so heroic, honestly. What she's doing is undergoing brain surgery, being a part of this radical research paradigm where she's most likely, in her lifetime, not going to receive any physical benefit from it. What she has received is spiritual benefit. What she has received is an enhanced sense of meaning in her life. But in terms of her being able to benefit directly from this technology, she most likely will never benefit directly from this technology. People in the future will.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race To Merge Minds And Machines." It's written by Malcolm Gay. He joined from member station WGBH in Boston. Malcolm, thanks so much.

GAY: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.