Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

Updated: “Fixing the Brain With Computers”

March 21st, 2012 / in big science, research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

(This post has been updated; please scroll down for the latest.)

Richard Bucholz, Saint Louis University

In IEEE’s Spectrum this week, there’s an interesting interview about man-machine interfaces with neurosurgeon and self-described hacker Richard Bucholz, a Professor of Neurosurgery and the Medical Director for the St. Louis Regional MEG Center at Saint Louis University, and a leading participant in the Human Connectome Project — a $30 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative to map the human brain.

Disabilities such as epilepsy, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even Parkinson’s disease are being treated with neuroimplants. Other scientists are working to substitute hearing for sight in blind people, and still others want to solve blindness entirely by implanting cameras in the brain.


Of course, in all the dramatic advances being made, occasionally a little bit of hype makes its way to our brains as well. A few years ago, a Wisconsin company called Wicab touted a device called the BrainPort, which put an array of electrodes in your mouth so that you could discern the shapes of objects in your environment as sensations on your tongue…


There’s so much going on in man-machine interfaces, I thought we’d bring in a world-class neuroscientist — and computer technologist — who has worked in many of these areas firsthand to sort it all out for us.

Bucholz describes both progress and challenges that remain. For instance, on a project addressing blindness in patients (after the jump):

There was a project here at St. Louis University that was continued in Europe, having to do with visual stimulation of the cortex by a camera system mounted on a highly modified pair of glasses. The idea here is that these cameras would take in a visual scene, transmit that to a series of discharges, be processed by a computer on the patient’s belt, and then transmitted to electrodes directly overlying the visual cortex of the brain, called the calcarine cortex…


This was done on a series of approximately five to six patients. The interesting thing about this was that these patients did seem to become orientated to their visual surroundings; they seemed to be able to interact with their surroundings better than when tested against people who were totally blind.


However, the maintenance of this device was highly problematic. Whenever you’re talking about a complex technology such as this computer that would analyze these, there was always the idea of revision… that is, the LCD cameras would improve, the computational capabilities of the computer would improve. However, the thing that would not improve was the implant lying on the brain, because you clearly can’t take the patient back for each revision of the electrodes.


So there was a common thread going through that entire research that the electrical technology was improving, but the interface between the technology and the brain was not evolving, and this finally led to a termination of the program. And now we are faced with the task of removing these devices while not disturbing the underlying cerebral cortex. So there are all sorts of philosophical issues whenever dealing with a technology and any type of interface situation to the brain.

Check out the podcast of the entire interview below…

…and read the full transcript here.


Last updated 4:00pm EDT on Wednesday, March 21: As it turns out, today’s Nature features the Human Connectome Project — an effort with which Bucholz is involved — and the grand challenge it is attempting to solve. Check out the article here.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

<em>Updated:</em> “Fixing the Brain With Computers”