They are called ‘brain-computer interfaces’, they allow the nervous system and the human brain to dialogue. The secret: speaking the same ‘language’. “The nervous system works with differences in electric potential, the same way a computer works. Today there is the possibility of making these two entities speak. The standard bearer of this frontier, from a media point of view, was Elon Musk, but I physically saw brain insertion chips already more than 20 years ago. The problem was all subsequent IT management. There has been progress and the fact that today we not only talk about it, but we have done it , indicates that technological evolution is very fast. I think this could be the future for the treatment of not only traumatic diseases, but also all those degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis and others that lead to the complete loss of marrow functions”. This is the scenario outlined by Pietro Mortini, head of neurosurgery at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, head of the team that implanted a spinal cord neurostimulator on a 32-year-old girl who had been paralyzed for 5 years, allowing her to walk again, with the help of a walker.
A future from which “years, but not decades” separate us – he points out to Adnkronos Salute – I would like to see my students who operate on a patient of this type every day. dream and have the determination to make dreams come true. This – points out the full professor of the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University – today is no longer a dream, we did it, it is there for all to see. It is a reality. Let’s start from here to ask above all for human resources. Because the problem is not the technological resource, that arrives. Technology is now making impressive progress in electronics. Right now we need to have the right engineers, rehabilitators, surgeons” for this type of activity. “The challenge is: if all this becomes a new field of neurosurgery, it will be necessary to educate groups of people with different specialties and knowledge to work together, and also have a different style of work, more team-based than individualistic”.
For the medullary neurostimulator, Mortini explains, “we used technological tools that are already in use for other indications (chronic pain), what varies is the functioning mode of these electrodes in the medulla and the programming of this stimulator, which is like a pacemaker of those used for cardiological diseases: it sends a signal which is an electrical stimulus on these electrodes surgically positioned on the spinal cord with a delicate operation”.
The programming of this stimulator “takes place by a group of dedicated engineers who establish, on the basis of a series of mathematical algorithms, the sequence and intensity of the stimulation, because each type of stimulation corresponds to the activation or deactivation of a muscle group. The stimulus that reaches the medulla is an electric current which then goes through the nerves and from there to the muscles. It is the first case that we treat in this way in Italy. There are already very limited experiences in the United States and Switzerland with some variations”, explains the specialist.
“Our Irccs – he adds – manages to concentrate the necessary experiences: surgical, neurophysiological, neurological, rehabilitative. There is a team of about thirty people who have been working on this patient for several weeks. It is a classic example of how a d’équipe leads to very encouraging results”.
For this important project, underlines Mortini, “we have the good fortune to collaborate with the engineers of the Sant’Anna High School in Pisa, real brains with whom we learn many things and exchange a lot of information. We have practically been living together for about two months “, he smiles. They put the engineering into it, the San Raffaele the medical part. “Medicine – reflects Mortini – teaches us that great strides have always been made when a specialist looks outside his field, at a different discipline, because this comparison always gives rise to an idea that others don’t have or that you don’t have.” “. Obviously “the decisive goal is for an advanced clinical research protocol to become a therapy – reasons the expert – As with pacemakers: the first ones fitted tens of years ago were considered experimental, now practically every family has someone who wears it absolutely normal.”
Could these applications based on brain-computer bridges become common in the future? “Yes – replies Mortini – I want to think about the use of these technologies only for motor functions, there are also some applications for vision, I dare not think of other applications. I would concentrate on these simple and important things for people’s lives. If let’s start imagining changing a person’s character with brain stimulation we enter a chapter that is very dangerous”.