As a kid growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, Michelle Armenta heard a lot about medicine from her parents. Her anesthesiologist father would describe finicky surgeries over dinner; her dentist mother would scour her mouth for cavities and chipped fillings. Back then, she didn’t have the exact words to describe the kind of scientist she hoped to become.
What she couldn’t have predicted was that her postdoc at Caltech would rely on a patient having exactly the right words to describe how Armenta’s science was affecting him. The patient in question had recently injured his spinal cord, losing both movement and feeling from his shoulders down. She and her labmates —including fellow Wunderkind Luke Bashford — wanted to see if they could, through wires surgically implanted in the patient’s brain, use electrical currents to create sensations that he’d lost.
After the electrodes were inserted in the operating room and the patient had recovered, they began trying to create feelings in his arm with nothing more than signals inside his skull.
“His injury was 1 1/2 years or two years out, but he was able to recall what it felt like prior to his injury,” Armenta said. “He used natural expressions of someone pressing on a specific part of his forearm, or a small tap, or a slight vibration, and also feelings of movement what we usually call proprioception: He felt like what we would feel like when you would move your elbow or your arm to the right or the left.”
Armenta has since moved on to the visual prosthetics company Second Sight Medical Products, but the lab hopes to use this research alongside a robotic arm, so that a patient could manipulate the artificial limb and “feel” how it’s coming into contact with the world.
— Eric Boodman