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Tue June 25, 2013
The man with a 'battery operated brain'
Originally published on Tue June 25, 2013 8:49 am
He calls himself the "human with the battery operated brain" because he does, in fact, have electrodes in his head, put there by his New Zealand doctors.
Andrew Johnson (also known as "Cyber AJ") a few months ago was a young, 39 year old, early-onset Parkinsonian who tremored constantly. His hands shook. His neck crimped. His body was stiff. He had balance problems, voice problems, trouble speaking. He can make those problems disappear now by hitting a switch. It's amazing to see. This video begins with him looking totally normal; he talks a bit, then, when he's ready, he pushes the "off" button, and the disease comes roaring back. Instantly.
This procedure, called "deep brain stimulation" is now used all over the world. When neurons in the brain start firing in ways that cause shakes and tics, it is sometimes possible, says neurosurgeon Andres Lozano, to control those tics by adding or subtracting electricity.
So what we've been able to do is to pinpoint where these disturbances are in the brain and we've been able to intervene within the circuits in the brain ... We do that with electricity. We use electricity to dictate how they fire and we try to block their behavior using electricity.
Over the years, these implants can pinpoint the errant neurons with increasing accuracy adding or subtracting electricity as needed. In Andrew's case, the implants turned him from a "39 year old trapped in an 89 year old body" to what passes for normal guy — at least when the current is on. As he says on his blog, youngandshaky.com, the surgery went fast.
I only had a small patch of hair removed from my head and chest and the wires pulled down and plugged into the neuro-stimulator which was implanted in my chest. Straight after the surgery I was in obscene amounts of pain (in my head) but double the normal dose of morphine soon put paid to that. While I was in recovery (incidentally longer than the time it took to do the surgery) there were lots of people milling around talking and getting ready to go to lunch etc. I am sure they were talking quietly but to me the slightest whisper was like a dagger to the skull and I remember thinking they better be quiet soon or I was going to get out of that bed and make them. That's if moving without falling to the floor in a crumpled heap was a possibility. The effects of the morphine soon kicked in and I started to feel halfway human again, albeit now a human with a battery operated brain. Cyber-AJ on the loose!
A few days later, after the staff had adjusted his monitor to compensate for his brain dysfunction, so that his body could move without shaking, (those settings will change; Parkinson's is a progressive disease), Andrew Johnson was released.
[T]he effects of being powered up are almost instantaneous. I have required several tweaks and medication adjustments but that is to be expected. I do feel a great deal better, certainly not to the point I was pre-Parkinson's but 100% better than I have felt in recent years. So from that perspective it has been a dream come true as I explained to a good friend Andy McDowell who came to visit me in hospital.
Andy McDowell also has Parkinson's, and he's written a poem about it to explain the disease to his children. "The only positive thing about this [expletive deleted] disease is meeting fantastic people like Andy and his wife Kate," says AJ. Here's the poem, "Smaller, A Poem About Parkinson's Disease", read by Andy's daughter Lily.
Thanks to blogger Jason Kottke for pointing me to AJ's story.