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.