THE BRAIN SURGERY lasted 11 and a half hours, beginning on the afternoon of June 21, 2014, and stretching into the Caribbean predawn of the next day. In the afternoon, after the anesthesia had worn off, the neurosurgeon came in, removed his wire-frame glasses, and held them up for his bandaged patient to examine. “What are these called?” he asked.
Phil Kennedy stared at the glasses for a moment. Then his gaze drifted up to the ceiling and over to the television. “Uh … uh … ai … aiee,” he stammered after a while, “… aiee … aiee … aiee.”
“It’s OK, take your time,” said the surgeon, Joel Cervantes, doing his best to appear calm. Again Kennedy attempted to respond. It looked as if he was trying to force his brain to work, like someone with a sore throat who bears down to swallow.
Meanwhile, the surgeon’s mind kept circling back to the same uneasy thought: “I shouldn’t have done this.”
When Kennedy had arrived at the airport in Belize City a few days earlier, he had been lucid and precise, a 66-year-old with the stiff, authoritative good looks of a TV doctor. There had been nothing wrong with him, no medical need for Cervantes to open his skull. But Kennedy wanted brain surgery, and he was willing to pay $30,000 to have it done.
Kennedy was himself once a famous neurologist. In the late 1990s he made global headlines for implanting several wire electrodes in the brain of a paralyzed man and then teaching the locked-in patient to control a computer cursor with his mind. Kennedy called his patient the world’s “first cyborg,” and the press hailed his feat as the first time a person had ever communicated through a brain-computer interface. From then on, Kennedy dedicated his life to the dream of building more and better cyborgs and developing a way to fully digitize a person’s thoughts.
Now it was the summer of 2014, and Kennedy had decided that the only way to advance his project was to make it personal. For his next breakthrough, he would tap into a healthy human brain. His own.
Hence Kennedy’s trip to Belize for surgery. A local orange farmer and former nightclub owner, Paul Powton, had managed the logistics of Kennedy’s operation, and Cervantes—Belize’s first native-born neurosurgeon—wielded the scalpel. Powton and Cervantes were the founders of Quality of Life Surgery, a medical tourism clinic that treats chronic pain and spinal disorders and also specializes these days in tummy tucks, nose jobs, manboob reductions, and other medical enhancements.
At first the procedure that Kennedy hired Cervantes to perform—the implantation of a set of glass-and-gold-wire electrodes beneath the surface of his own brain—seemed to go quite well. There wasn’t much bleeding during the surgery. But his recovery was fraught with problems. Two days in, Kennedy was sitting on his bed when, all of a sudden, his jaw began to grind and chatter, and one of his hands began to shake. Powton worried that the seizure would break Kennedy’s teeth.
His language problems persisted as well. “He wasn’t making sense anymore,” Powton says. “He kept apologizing, ‘Sorry, sorry,’ because he couldn’t say anything else.” Kennedy could still utter syllables and a few scattered words, but he seemed to have lost the glue that bound them into phrases and sentences. When Kennedy grabbed a pen and tried to write a message, it came out as random letters scrawled on a page.
At first Powton had been impressed by what he called Kennedy’s Indiana Jones approach to science: tromping off to Belize, breaking the standard rules of research, gambling with his own mind. Yet now here he was, apparently locked in. “I thought we had damaged him for life,” Powton says. “I was like, what have we done?”
Of course, the Irish-born American doctor knew the risks far better than Powton and Cervantes did. After all, Kennedy had invented those glass-and-gold electrodes and overseen their implantation in almost a half dozen other people. So the question wasn’t what Powton and Cervantes had done to Kennedy—but what Phil Kennedy had done to himself.
FOR ABOUT AS long as there have been computers, there have been people trying to figure out a way to control them with our minds. In 1963 a scientist at Oxford University reported that he had figured out how to use human brain waves to control a simple slide projector. Around the same time, a Spanish neuroscientist at Yale University, José Delgado, grabbed headlines with a grand demonstration at a bullring in Córdoba, Spain. Delgado had invented a device he called a stimoceiver—a radio-controlled brain implant that could pick up neural signals and deliver tiny shocks to the cortex. When Delgado stepped into the ring, he flashed a red cape to incite the bull to charge. As the animal drew close, Delgado pressed two buttons on his radio transmitter: The first triggered the bull’s caudate nucleus and slowed the animal to a halt; the second made it turn and trot off toward a wall.
Delgado dreamed of using his electrodes to tap directly into human thoughts: to read them, edit them, improve them. “The human race is at an evolutionary turning point. We’re very close to having the power to construct our own mental functions,” he told The New York Times in 1970, after trying out his implants on mentally ill human subjects. “The question is, what sort of humans would we like, ideally, to construct?
Not surprisingly, Delgado’s work made a lot of people nervous. And in the years that followed, his program faded, beset by controversy, starved of research funding, and stymied by the complexities of the brain, which was not as susceptible to simple hot-wiring as Delgado had imagined.
In the meantime, scientists with more modest agendas—who wanted simply to decipher the brain’s signals, rather than to grab civilization by the neurons—continued putting wires in the heads of laboratory animals. By the 1980s neuroscientists had figured out that if you use an implant to record signals from groups of cells in, say, the motor cortex of a monkey, and then you average all their firings together, you can figure out where the monkey means to move its limb—a finding many regarded as the first major step toward developing brain-controlled prostheses for human patients.
But the traditional brain electrode implants used in much of this research had a major drawback: The signals they picked up were notoriously unstable. Because the brain is a jellylike medium, cells sometimes drift out of range while they’re being recorded or end up dying from the trauma of colliding with a pointy piece of metal. Eventually electrodes can get so caked with scar tissue that their signals fade completely.
Phil Kennedy’s breakthrough—the one that would define his career in neuroscience and ultimately set him on a path to an operating table in Belize—started out as a way to solve this basic bioengineering problem. His idea was to pull the brain inside the electrode so the electrode would stay safely anchored inside the brain. To do this, he affixed the tips of some Teflon-coated gold wires inside a hollow glass cone. In the same tiny space, he inserted another crucial component: a thin slice of sciatic nerve. This crumb of biomaterial would serve to fertilize the nearby neural tissue, enticing microscopic arms from local cells to unfurl into the cone. Instead of plunging a naked wire into the cortex, Kennedy would coax nerve cells to weave their tendriled growths around the implant, locking it in place like a trellis ensnarled in ivy. (For human subjects he would replace the sciatic nerve with a chemical cocktail known to stimulate neural growth.)
The glass cone design seemed to offer an incredible benefit. Now researchers could leave their wires in situ for long stretches of time. Instead of catching snippets of the brain’s activity during single sessions in the lab, they could tune in to lifelong soundtracks of the brain’s electrical chatter.
Kennedy called his invention the neurotrophic electrode. Soon after he came up with it, he quit his academic post at Georgia Tech and started up a biotech company called Neural Signals. In 1996, after years of animal testing, Neural Signals received approval from the FDA to implant Kennedy’s cone electrodes in human patients, as a possible lifeline for people who had no other way to move or speak. And in 1998, Kennedy and his medical collaborator, Emory University neurosurgeon Roy Bakay, took on the patient who would make them scientific celebrities.
Johnny Ray was a 52-year-old drywall contractor and Vietnam veteran who had suffered a stroke at the base of his brain. The injury had left him on a ventilator, stuck in bed, and paralyzed except for slight twitchings of his face and shoulder. He could answer simple questions by blinking twice for “yes” and once for “no.”
Since Ray’s brain had no way to pass its signals down into his muscles, Kennedy tried to wiretap Ray’s head to help him communicate. Kennedy and Bakay placed electrodes in Ray’s primary motor cortex, the patch of tissue that controls basic voluntary movements. (They found the perfect spot by first putting Ray into an MRI machine and asking him to imagine moving his hand. Then they put the implant on the spot that lit up most brightly in his fMRI scans.) Once the cones were in place, Kennedy hooked them up to a radio transmitter implanted on top of Ray’s skull, just beneath the scalp.
Three times a week, Kennedy worked with Ray, trying to decode the waves from his motor cortex and then turn them into actions. As time went by, Ray learned to modulate the signals from his implant just by thinking. When Kennedy hooked him up to a computer, he was able to use those modulations to control a cursor on the screen (albeit only along a line from left to right). Then he’d twitch his shoulder to trigger a mouseclick. With this setup, Ray could pick out letters from an onscreen keyboard and very slowly spell out words.
“This is right on the cutting edge, it’s Star Wars stuff,” Bakay told an audience of fellow neurosurgeons in October 1998. A few weeks later, Kennedy presented their results at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience. That was enough to send the Amazing Story of Johnny Ray—once locked in, now typing with his mind—into newspapers all around the country and the world. That December both Bakay and Kennedy were guests on Good Morning America. In January 1999, news of their experiment appeared in The Washington Post. “As Philip R. Kennedy, physician and inventor, prepares a paralyzed man to operate a computer with his thoughts,” the article began, “it briefly seems possible a historic scene is unfolding in this hospital room and that Kennedy might be a new Alexander Graham Bell.”