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“The Man with the Bionic Brain: And Other Victories over Paralysis” by Jon Mukand

By Timothy R. Smith,

Medicine

THE MAN WITH THE BIONIC BRAIN

And Other Victories Over Paralysis

By Jon Mukand Chicago Review. 353 pp. $26.95

Matthew Nagle was a 21-year-old star athlete when he got into a brawl and an eight-inch hunting knife pierced the back of his neck, slid into his backbone and unspliced his spinal cord. The injury left him a quadriplegic, his body inert; a ventilator inflated and deflated his lungs so he could breathe. Nurses and family had to feed, bathe and dress him.

Could there be a worse fate for a hale young man in his prime?

But there was hope for Nagle, as detailed in “The Man With the Bionic Brain,” a sensitive, heartrending account by Jon Mukand, a specialist at the Southern New England Rehabilitation Center who became close to the young man. Like many people with severe spinal cord injuries, Nagle was desperate; he was also courageous enough to take a big risk. “He was in a race against time, a race to get a computerized brain implant, an electrode system, stem cells, or any other technology that could cure his spinal cord injury — before he died from its many complications,” Mukand writes.

At the time, Mukand worked with the BrainGate project, which planned to install a pill-size cathode in Nagle’s brain — a revolutionary operation. If it worked, the device would give him a semblance of independence.

Nagle was the human guinea pig for BrainGate, which operates by recognizing thought patterns, allowing a recipient to manipulate a computer screen without his hands. Bionics have helped others in Mukand’s account: An electronic brace returned function to the paralyzed arm of a high school hockey player, and another such brace came to the aid of a woman left half-paralyzed by a stroke.

Mukand’s lucid, clear prose distills complex neuroscience in a way that is as easy to follow as an episode of “ER.” His book holds out the possibility of self-reliance for people imprisoned in broken bodies.

— Timothy R. Smith

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