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Brain-implanted devices could lead to medical breakthroughs

Katherine Long, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE -- Fred Foy's hands used to shake and tremble uncontrollably from a nerve disorder known as essential tremor, making it hard for him to do the simplest tasks -- from signing his name to eating with utensils.

So in November 2016, he went through experimental surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center to fix the tremors with a device implanted in his brain.

"It's working great," said the 82-year-old Foy, of Maple Valley, who still works as a manager of the apartments he built when he was a younger man. "It's a miracle. I can eat now -- I can do things with my right hand that I couldn't do before."

The fix was pioneered by the University of Washington's Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), which conducts cutting-edge research that aims to create an interface between the brain and computers.

The center's moon shot: To allow people who have been paralyzed by injury or stroke to move their limbs again, said Scott Ransom, director of industry relations and innovation for CSNE.

The center was established in 2011 with a 10-year, $40?million federal grant from the National Science Foundation. Two other branches of the program operate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and San Diego State University. In all, 50 faculty in the three institutions are part of the program, along with 31 industry partners.

Among its faculty members: a neuroethicist who helps scientists work through the ethical implications of putting computer chips in the body and brain to govern movement. "We're leading the world in setting these standards," Ransom said.

The center hopes to further its experiments in human research, and the essential-tremor research is one of the early steps in that effort.

Essential tremor is a nerve disorder characterized by involuntary, rhythmic shaking, although sufferers do not shake when resting or sleeping. Its cause is not known, and there is no cure.

One way to treat it is with deep brain stimulation, using an implanted device that provides electrical stimulation that quiets the symptoms.

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