If we only go by the overwhelmingly negative headlines that crowd the media space on a 24/7 basis, we can be forgiven for being pessimistic about the future of mankind when we learn about the daily massacres in the endemic regions of the Middle East and certain countries in Africa in the main, crimes against women and children, the grinding poverty affecting hundreds of millions of people – amongst the many other heart-rending stories which make our stomachs churn.
Fortunately there is at least partial relief in the form of good tidings that come from a category of people who are continually striving to improve the lives of their fellow citizens: the scientists. I do take issue, as I did in my article last week, about some of the recommendations, based on their latest findings, that sometimes appear to be controversial. But I also pointed out that this only shows that scientists have a sound methodology which allows for a change when new evidence comes in, and this is done in open, widely accessible forums. Overall, though, the work of scientists is almost always in the direction of mankind’s welfare through the incremental addition of knowledge and the applications deriving therefrom.
One such advance is a heartening piece of news that I have come across about a patient who has been paralysed from the neck down for about four years. This means that he has been unable since to move all his four limbs: his whole arm and hand on both sides, and his whole leg on both sides too. This condition is called ‘quadriplegia’ for those who might wish to know it, and usually results from an injury to the spine of a person at the level of his neck.
As the news item header reads, ‘New technology has given a paralysed man an ability to move his hand using only his thoughts for the first time in four years.’ (italics added) Only those who have to deal with such paralysed people can truly understand what a phenomenal development this event represents, and how transformative it is going to be for the victims. Of course it may be quite some time before this device becomes widely available and affordable to the millions of sufferers in the world, but the promise of the technology raises tremendous hope, and is but one of the millions of milestones that science has achieved to date for the benefit of all human beings, for humanity at large.
It may be noted that the neuroscientists – whose area of interest is the brain and spinal cord – have worked at this for nearly ten years, and that in conformity with ethical standards, the patient is one of a group of five that are enrolled in a clinical trial. We all know that movement of a finger, for example, is initiated by a will to move it. The will is translates as a thought which, scientists, have discovered, gives rise to an electrical signal in the area of the brain concerned with movement of the parts of the body, fingers included of course. Such electrical signals then travel from the brain via the spinal cord to the muscles along thread-like cables called nerves which end in the muscles, and cause them to contract (watch how the biceps of weight lifters contract!) to produce movement of the part concerned.
In the paralysed patient damage to the spinal cord interrupts the pathway and therefore the ‘thought signal’ from the brain cannot reach the nerves and thus the muscles: they therefore cannot contract, which means no movement of the limbs – this is what is called paralysis. But what if the spinal cord could be bypassed and the thought-signals be sent directly to the muscles from the brain over some sort of bridging device? Sounds so simple – but there is a time for everything. And where science is concerned, that moment is dependent on a host of factors, amongst which developments in parallel sciences. An example is the human genome which every educated layman knows about: its mapping had to await the enormous rise in the processing power of computers.
In the case of these patients under trial, the scientists invented what they call a Neurobridge. They implanted a tiny chip in the appropriate area of the brain of these patients that could record their thought-signals as electrical impulses, which are then transmitted to a computer which processes them and sends them onwards via cables to the forearm muscles of the patients. After much trial, and training on the part of the patients, the one under reference was able to move his fingers for the first time in four years after the diving accident that rendered him quadriplegic. What further developments take place from there will be very exciting to follow.
Practically all of us think without ever… thinking what a thought is, although we intuitively assume that our thoughts arise in our brain. A thought arises when we come in contact with an object, which creates an impression in our brain, and the repetition of this process eventually results in a thought which is then stored away as memory. Subsequently, every time this object comes before us, we are able to recognize it as a familiar one. Now imagine the hundreds of objects (things and people) that we come across from the time we are born, and therefore the number of thoughts that our brain keeps accumulating. To this we must add our reactions to our contacts with objects – like, don’t like, want to possess them, want to get rid of them, and so on endlessly — and these eventually over a lifetime add up to millions. These millions of thoughts we call our mind.
Now we know that thoughts can also arise spontaneously – when we dream, for example, and they can be very funny, frightening or weird isn’t it? Besides, we can have odd thoughts, for example about hearing voices out of nowhere, what are known as hallucinations. Put simply, therefore, the mind appears to be like a lake full of unruly waves that are keep rising and falling, but are never absent, even in our sleep! It has fallen to scientists to uncover the material nature of thoughts as being electrical signals, and exploit the latter to help paralysed people.
But there are people who have explored the subtler nature of thoughts and how to channel them so that the mind instead of being agitated all the time is calmed. They are no less wizards than scientists, the sages who have perfected the art of meditation which is as refined and requires as much training as required for scientific feats. But that is another story…
* Published in print edition on 27 June 2014