Mental research at UW-Madison could correct disabilities

Mental research at UW-Madison could correct disabilities

Madison, Wis. — UW-Madison scientists have research on the brain. In the past few months, university biomedical researchers have been pouring their time and effort into projects that can combat neural disorders and help patients live normal lives. With the projects now entering the area of human testing and getting closer to market, their attention to detail has become more important than ever.

Implants encourage mind over movement

One major effort at the UW is the development of the brain computer interface, a system of mental implants devised to help restore motor skills that are lost with the onset of conditions such as strokes and Lou Gehrig’s disease. According to Justin Williams, a biomedical engineer at UW-Madison, the project depends on locating the damaged areas so the implants can administer helpful electrical currents.
As part of the research to locate these areas, Williams and his fellow researchers have been observing patients with epilepsy that are being treated at UW Hospital because of the already existing treatments to learn where the seizures are coming from. Volunteers are put through a series of concentration tests while they are awaiting treatment, hooked up to a set of computer games that they control by brain activity alone.
Williams said the tests are designed to compare which sections of the brain are used in moving and thinking about an activity. “We study the `cocktail-party’ effect — how the brain is able to focus on one person and block out all others, and then be able to shift your focus at a minute’s notice.”
The study’s results have helped point the team towards discovering larger, more unconscious regions of the brain that are used in controlling movement, allowing them to move away from the typical areas of study such as the temporal lobe and motor areas. The auditory area in particular has been highly active, showing that pinpointing the exact spot may not be as important to treatments.
“It lays a groundwork that we might not have to find the exact right spot — there’s many areas where they can learn to adapt,” Williams said.
Williams said that they hope to move the project forward over the next few months once more volunteers are available, but the project’s own success holds it back a little.
“There’s a lot of technology involved�on a daily basis we’re revamping and rewiring software,” Williams said. “It’s an even harder problem because we weren’t expecting patients to do this well.”

Wicab helps unbalanced patients get back on their feet

Another UW-based project to help people cope with everyday difficulties is the BrainPort technology, created by the university offshoot company Wicab. Wicab was founded in 1998 by UW-Madison biomedical professor Paul Bach-y-Rita, in an effort to provide stability to people who cannot see or have poor balance due to inner ear complications.
BrainPort takes the form of placing a helmet on the patient’s head and hooking dozens of electrodes to their tongue. When the head tilts in any direction, the electrodes send a very mild shock to certain parts of the tongue, letting the patient know which way they are tilting. Treatments have been successful in giving unbalanced patients up to six hours of stability a day, and have allowed blind people to navigate without aid.
According to the project website, the tongue is ideally suited to aid the brain because of its sensitive nerve fibers and ability to maintain electrical impulses, meaning that the right training lets it serve as an outlet to the brain.
Robert Beckman, CEO of Wicab, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday that the company is currently raising money from investors to conduct further clinical trials of the system, and is studying new markets such as connecting Navy SEALS directly to sonar equipment underwater. Wicab hopes to have BrainPort approved by the government and made available to the general public within a year.
“The focus is now on the markets, who this could benefit and how large those markets might be,” Beckman told the Journal Sentinel.
Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at