Re-gaining Full Consciousness: 10 Months of Highlights from The Checkup

Category Technology

tldr #

The Checkup has had a successful 10 months of coverage on important developments in medicine and biotechnology. Topics include attempts to pull minimally conscious people back into full consciousness, stories of personal challenges, and the ethical implications of implants in the brain. The article takes a look at the stories that have made an impact on the reporter.

content #

As regular readers will know, I tend to start each edition of this newsletter by telling you all about a topic that’s been on my mind—whether it’s a big news story, a fascinating trend, or just something cool I happened to hear about in my reporting.

The Checkup is not yet a year old, but we’ve covered some extremely exciting developments in medicine and biotechnology since we launched last September. We’ve come a long way since then—today, there are over 77,000 of you getting this newsletter in your inboxes every week! We’ve covered everything from teeny-tiny viruses to life-changing brain implants. There’s been a real mix of stories that have made me laugh, cry, and—always—think. So let’s take the opportunity to look at some story highlights from the last 10 months.

In 2019, over 77,000 people read The Checkup newsletter every week

I spoke to neuroscientist John Whyte, who told me about attempts to pull minimally conscious people back into full consciousness. Some of these have involved sticking electrodes into a part of the brain that’s thought to control awareness. Others have involved drugs.

As a reporter covering health and biotech, I am hugely privileged to hear the personal stories of people who have been through incredible experiences. Another story that will stick with me is that of Ian Burkhart, who I spoke to for a more recent edition of the Checkup. A few years ago, he was in a very dark place—quadriplegic as a result of a diving accident, and struggling to come to terms with his condition.

Neuroscientist John Whyte has attempted to use both electrodes and drugs to pull minimally conscious people back into full consciousness

A few years later, he volunteered to have an experimental device implanted in his brain. The device, which was essentially a set of 100 electrodes, was designed to record activity in a part of his brain responsible for controlling arm movement. Researchers were able to send recorded brain signals to a sleeve of electrodes on Burkhart’s arm via a computer. He was soon able to use the device to move his hand and fingers by thought alone.

Ian Burkhart was the first person to be able to control his arm and hand through thought with an experimental device

But looming funding cuts soon threatened the project, and after an infection, he had to have the implant removed. He found this difficult, he told me. "When I first had my spinal cord injury, everyone said: ‘You’re never going to be able to move anything from your shoulders down again,’" he said. "I was able to restore that function, and then lose it again. That was really tough." (You can read more about the ethical implications of removing brain implants—particularly when recipients feel it has become part of them—in this piece).

The device was made up of 100 electrodes, but had to be removed after an infection and looming funding cuts

Exploring these developments and their ethical, legal, and moral implications has been fascinating. There often aren’t definitive answers to questions like these, but exploring them has been a blast. I’d like to say a great big thank you for doing that with me.

Read more from Tech Review's archive .

From around the web .

hashtags #
worddensity #