Dr. Jon Mukand is a rehabilitation medicine specialist and the medical director of the Providence-based Southern New England Rehabilitation Center.
Mukand, a Providence resident, serves on the clinical faculty of Brown University and Tufts University.
Mukand talked to Providence Business News about his new book – “The Man with the Bionic Brain” – and the developments in the biotech industry.
PBN: In your new book, The Man with the Bionic Brain, you talk about Matthew Nagle, the fully paralyzed young man who was able to control a computer cursor after neurosurgeons implanted micro-electrodes in his brain. How big of a breakthrough was this in biotechnology?
MUKAND: This was the first human research study with a fully paralyzed person who had a spinal cord injury. My fellow Brown University researchers, led by Professor John Donoghue, did not know if there would be nerve signals or if Matt could use them. Matt’s success with the BrainGate technology was a major breakthrough and made international news.
PBN: Why did you decide to write this book?
MUKAND: Matt was a fascinating person, a pioneer who had the courage and the altruism to volunteer as the first human subject for an experimental brain surgery that might help people with disabilities.
As Matt’s research doctor, I trace his medical journey over several years, starting with his paralysis when he was stabbed in the neck while helping a friend at a beach brawl in 2001. I describe how Matt made scientific history when the microelectrodes in his brain recognized his thought patterns, allowing him to use e-mail, manipulate a prosthetic hand, adjust TV settings and play video games—all just by thinking about performing these tasks. Finally, I describe the struggles and triumphs of people with paralysis and try to give hope to others with disabilities.
The book includes people with strokes and spinal cord injuries who used a variety of technologies to overcome paralysis. One of these was my patient at the Southern New England Rehabilitation Center, a woman with a stroke who used just a plastic foot brace—but did extremely well with the help of a skilled physical therapist.
PBN: Have there been any other examples like Nagle in recent medical history?
MUKAND: Another patient with paralysis, a woman with a severe stroke, used the BrainGate system to control a robotic arm to pick up a glass and drink from it. This remarkable feat was recently published in Nature.
PBN: How has biotechnology - specifically regarding medical devices - grown in the last 5-10 years?
MUKAND: Modern computers have very fast processing speeds, large memories, and wireless control mechanisms. (In college I used a computer that filled a small room!) We’ve also learned more about the physiology and function of the nervous system, including the ability of the body to adapt and recover (neuro-plasticity).
As a result, neuroscientists can develop medical devices that are better at replicating the natural functions of the human body. For instance, Matt also used a lung pacemaker that allowed him to escape his ventilator.
PBN: What are some recent advances in biotechnology that you're excited about?
MUKAND: One of the frontiers in health care is personalized medicine. A recent study classified people with multiple sclerosis into two groups based on their RNA activity, which allowed the researchers to predict who would benefit more from certain MS drugs.
This approach could lead to medications that are targeted for specific types of diseases. Stem cells also hold great promise for regenerating damaged tissues in human beings who are suffering from a variety of medical problems.
Biotechnology is exciting, but if people with disabilities are to benefit from medical advances, we also have to address preventive care and wellness.