Nobel Conference 47 Presenter Profile: John P. Donoghue

Posted on September 13th, 2011 by

John P. Donoghue

A woman driving a wheelchair with nothing but her mind. Does this sound like science fiction? With the help of BrainGate neural prosthetic technology designed by John Donoghue, Cathy Hutchinson can control her wheelchair, a computer, and even one of her arms. This wonder of applied research and engineering promises to allow stroke victims like Cathy and those with ALS and spinal cord injuries to again control their limbs and perhaps even allow them to perform many day-to-day activities. One of Donoghue’s short term goals is to provide Cathy with enough control of her limbs that she can take a drink without assistance.

Donoghue obtained his bachelor’s degree in biology from Boston University and his master’s degree in anatomy from the University of Vermont. After earning his doctorate in neuroscience from Brown University, he began a post-doctoral appointment at Michigan State University. There, he studied brain abnormalities in people with mental retardation, and continued the research at the National Institute of Mental Health. Exploring the cerebral cortex, he looked at many brain cells at once in order to understand how the brain transforms thought into action. The development of multi-electrode brain probes allowed Donoghue and his students to understand the fundamental codes of communication used by the brain. They were able to demonstrate, for example, how a monkey could play a simple video game using only its mind.

Donoghue’s BrainGate system combines one hundred hair-like electrodes inserted in the motor cortex with external processors and additional electrodes to bypass the broken communication system in paralyzed individuals. In most cases, the brain still commands the muscles to move; it is a breakdown of the spinal cord, nerves, or muscles themselves that keep muscles from responding. Insight into the firing of cells associated with the thought of motion made it possible for Donoghue to stun the world by helping to restore movement to the paralyzed. To develop the laboratory findings into clinical applications for humans, Donoghue co-founded Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, Inc., which is continuing to develop the BrainGate system. His work earned him a number of awards, including the 2005 Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics magazine, a 2004 Discover Award for Innovation and Reader’s Digest’s Top Medical Breakthrough of 2005.

Donoghue is excited to be able to apply basic science to help the human condition. The 20 years of National Institutes of Health money that allowed him to teach monkeys to play video games has also jumpstarted neurotechnology. What started out as just an attempt to determine how the brain worked could end up changing the lives of many people suffering from paralysis due to brain and spinal cord injury. He will continue to work to make it possible for paralyzed people to communicate, to develop crude movement, even to get up and walk around. Running two laboratories keeps Donoghue very busy. Whenever he has the chance, he says, “I enjoy being out on the water in my small power boat.”

Donoghue is scheduled to deliver his Nobel Conference lecture at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5. Click here for more information about this year’s Nobel Conference.

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