Make a quadriplegic walk, change the mood of a depressed person or even eliminate the tremors of a patient with Parkinson’s, through a device implanted in the brain, are some of the projects very discreetly developed by a Grenoble laboratory.
Distributed along a corridor, six rooms still empty, and a surgical unit occupy the ground floor of the brand new laboratory, looking austere, with ultra-secure access, on the Grenoble scientific “peninsula”.
Called Clinatec, the laboratory, supported by the French Atomic Energy Commission or Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA) and the Grenoble University Hospital (CHU), got the agreement of the National Security Agency of Medicines, this summer, to conduct its first human tests, after about five years’ research.
Early 2013, in the Clinic which gathered about sixty engineers, doctors and biologists specializing in nanotechnology, volunteer patients lent themselves to “one of the most promising projects” of the laboratory, called “brain-machine interface,” announced its director, François Berger.
The program consists in implanting on the surface of a quadriplegic’s brain, a tiny package containing electrodes. Microchips record the patient’s brain activity and change it into motion, through a robotized arm or leg .
So, when a disabled person wishes to raise his/her arm, he/she issues electrical signals, which are picked up by the package then “digested” by a software, which speeds up the articulated arm or leg, declared François Berger, cell biology Professor.
Tests on monkeys and pigs locked up on a floor of the building, whose access was denied to the AFP, “showed no side-effects”, asserted François Berger.
Along with this project, researchers are working on the miniaturization of components used in brain neurostimulation, which was developed there about twenty years ago, by one of Clinatec’s architects, Grenoble neurosurgeon Alim-Louis Benabid.
Member of the Academy of Sciences, Alim-Louis Benabid, who did not wish to answer our questions, has developed a technology, which enables the removal of tremors of Parkison’s patients, by sending an electrical frequency to some areas of the brain.
“The stake today is to refine the excited zones of the brain, thanks to smaller electrodes measuring less than a millimetre, to be more efficient and to treat other diseases”, underlined Mr Berger, alluding with minced words to serious depressions and behaviorial disorders.
If the number of people with Parkinson’s disease in France is estimated at about 150,000, deep neurostimulation concerns only 5-10% patients, because of many contra-indications , qualified France-Parkison’s Association.
“I can drive again for short distances and move without help. I used to take about twenty pills a day but a little more than four now ,” stated Jean-Jacques Garnier, who had an operation in July 2011.
“This technique is an extraordinary achievement,” admited the director of France-Parkinson’s Association, Mathilde Laederich. “However, we can only regret the absence of a database of side effects, (…) such as unpredictable falls and highly disabling speech difficulties,” she said.
Grenoble Collective “Pièces et Main d’Oeuvre” had gathered about a hundred demonstrators, at the Clinatec inauguration on the Grenoble scientific “peninsula”, last January. As far as they are concerned, this is a new “gateway to the production of human robots.”
For this small group, which criticizes “technological tyranny” and lack of transparency, Clinatec experiments are “one more step towards ‘man-machine’ ever more efficient and competitive,” said one of its representatives who would not give his name.