Published in Jan-Feb 2011 ed. of Science Spin
The decision to become a ‘biomedical engineer’ was prompted by witnessing how machines helped a family member cope with kidney disease while he was a teenager. These days, Richard Reilly, Professor of Neural Engineering at TCD, and a ‘start’ of the Irish research scene, wants to de-code and intercept the language of the brain and then interact with it, so that people that can’t move their limbs can simply ‘think’ an action, and a machine will perform it. This work will entail gaining greater insights into how the brain communicates, and how that communication might change with age, or disease.
In the future, thanks to people like Richard, it is possible that disabled people, seriously injured people, and people suffering from a range of diseases and disorders, could lead more independent lives. Studies show thoughts can now be ‘read’ with a high degree of accuracy. This means that when a person thinks a word, such as ‘yes’, that brain scanning machines can – with an accuracy of up to 90 per cent – translate that thought as ‘yes. It seems reasonable to suppose that the accuracy levels will soon approach 100 per cent.
Right now, a person that has, for example, become completely paralyzed from the neck down, following a car accident, has to rely on others to move their wheelchair or even to turn on the TV and change the channel. In the not-to-distant future, thanks to Prof Reilly and others, it is likely a person could move their own wheelchair themselves, by thinking ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘forwards’, or ‘backwards’. Likewise the TV could be turned ‘on’ or ‘off’. It might seem basic to the rest of us, but for a paralyzed person this is a huge advance.
There is a growing area of science that is seeking to explore ‘brain computer interfaces’. This can be broadly described as systems that allow the brain to control devices. Richard describes himself, somewhat surprisingly, as a “big critic” of work on such interfaces, as he believes that most of the researchers doing this kind of work are only focusing on the applications end of things, the devices or end products, rather than trying to explore and understand more about the neurology of the brain itself. The understanding of the brain must come first, before products Richard believes or it risks giving false hope to people.
From Dublin, Richard attended St Conleth’s College, Clyde Road, Ballsbridge for both his primary and secondary education. He recalls some fantastic teachers, and small class sizes, with a great physics and chemistry laboratory. Richard’s dad, James Reilly, was an architect and his parents instilled in him from a young age, a love of architecture, and the history and legacy of ancient Greece and Rome. He vividly recalls visiting his father’s office and being fascinated by the set squares, huge drawing boards, and people putting their ideas down on paper. But, something was to happen to spark an interest in science.
When he was 13 or 14 a close family member began to have difficulty with her kidneys, and Richard recalls visiting the hospital with her and seeing how machines purified her blood, transforming her from a lethargic state, to being full of ‘pep’ and ready to go. It made a lasting impression on him. He decided there and then that he would find out about how to get involved with machines that would interact with the body like that. This was the moment when his career path changed from architecture to biomedical engineering.
His mother went on to have a kidney transplant. That was 1982; the year Richard did his Leaving Certificate. The operation was successful and the family member is alive and well today. That year of ’82 was also a year when Ireland – not unlike today – was in the grip of a savage recession, with an unstable government and cuts and job losses everywhere. However, for the teenage Richard none of that mattered. He was determined to pursue his passion, which he had identified by now as the emerging field of biomedical engineering.
He recalls that it would have been far easier for him to do architecture, as with his father an architect he had a route in to the profession and many excellent contacts. But, he chose to follow his passion. He did his research, in the pre-Internet era, and discovered that there was a UCD electronic engineer called Prof Annraoí de Paor, doing research into how machines could be adapted to help humans. He wrote him a letter of introduction.
Richard had great expectations of college, and perhaps because he had done extensive homework in advance, in terms of selecting his college and his course, it lived up to his expectations. His first year was in Belfield, but after that he was based in Merrion Street, in the city centre, where all the 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students lived in close proximity, almost “almost falling over each other”. This closeness meant he could see what others were doing in the projects, could ask questions, and decide who he’d like to work with.
He enjoyed Merrion Street greatly. He chose a final undergraduate research year project working with the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire – which was to prove the start of a career-long connection – in the area of speech and language. He worked with stroke victims, people that often lose some power of speech. He built a ‘splint’ that could measure the impact of a person’s tongue on the alveolar ridge on the ridge of the mouth. This indicated how well a person could articulate ‘b’ and ‘c’ sounds. It was an objective measure of articulation that assisted the work of speech therapists.
Richard won a prize for his research project from Hewlett Packard. It was a pivotal moment. Suddenly he was considering further research after his undergraduate degree, rather than going out immediately into the workplace. “That changed everything and I thought maybe this research side of things is interesting,” he recalled. He stayed on at UCD to do a M.Sc. with Prof Annraoi de Paor, the man he wanted to work with since his final year in school. They worked on an Irish language speech and language synthesizer.
At this point, Richard’s abilities had started to be noticed, and he was approached by a company called Space Technology Ireland, run by the famous Prof Susan McKenna Lawlor, now retired, at NUI Maynooth. He was offered a job in Paris to work on ‘signal processing’ for scientific satellites – to be launched by NASA. He was based at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherché scientifique) in Paris at the Observatoire de Meudon. This was “incredibly exciting” and Richard went on to work on two space satellite projects.
In Paris he enjoyed working on big scale projects, with big budgets, and huge planning – where everyone’s work impacted directly on everyone else, and all team members had to work backwards from a launch date. He spent two and a half years working in Paris, but, after a time, he decided he wanted to get back to his passion – biomedical engineering.
He returned to Ireland to work on a PhD again with Prof de Paor. His research focused on determining whether he could ‘record’ communication signals from the brain. He again worked with the National Rehabilitation Hospital, primarily with people suffering from Motor Neuron Disease. Richard was now set clearly on the path to an academic career, and a post at UCD followed, and now he is Prof of Neural Engineering, based at TCD.
Over the past decade or so, Richard’s research has been linked closely with St Vincent’s University Hospital, St James’s and The Mater hospitals, all in Dublin. Recently he has been working with Prof Tim Lynch at the Mater in the area of ‘deep brain stimulation’.
This involves the implantation of a device, something like a pacemaker into a person and linking that device with the brain. The device stimulates the brain with electrical signals. Though researchers don’t fully understand why, this stimulation can greatly improve the physical symptoms of people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and Essential tremor and Dystonia (the latter being a disease often associated in Ireland with Christy Brown, the writer of My Left Foot).
This research is all part of trying to better understand how the brain processes information, and how the various parts of the brain communicate with each other. This understanding could lead to the development of systems that could help disabled people to control machines around them simply by ‘thinking’. The technology to facilitate this happening could be implanted in people’s brains, or connected externally.
Already, it is possible for disabled people to control machines, or devices, by thinking, albeit in a limited way. For example, it is possible to change the channels on the TV, or to turn something on or off. In the USA, it is ethical possible to do research on human volunteers – which is not possible in Europe – and this has enabled researchers to implant dense electrodes in the cortex of living people and ‘translate’ brain patterns. In Europe, researchers must work with electrodes on the skull of human volunteers. This reduces the options for researchers in Ireland like Richard, but he believes he can still make progress.
In Europe research tends to use 512 electrodes placed around the heads of human volunteers – in a skull cap kind of arrangement. Then experiments can be set up using EEG and fMRI brain scanning – brain imaging methods that have improved greatly in recent years. These brain scanning machines are providing more and more precise information on the way communication happens within the brain. The idea now is to intercept this information as it travels back and forth around the brain and ‘decode’ it.
Richard loves his work, and to say he simply enjoys it would be inaccurate. The great thing about being a scientist, he said, is that the scientist can define his own destiny, that there is always an adventure, and when experiments are set up and performed, it is never possible to know what is around the corner. It is important to select research projects carefully, he added, as there is simply not enough time in the day to do everything.
One of the things he enjoys most about his job is interacting with post-graduate students, and being in the lab. He has an office in his lab, and is, therefore, always in close proximity to his students. It is also very satisfying that many of his former students are scattered all over the world, and that this network provides new research opportunities.
Despite Ireland’s current woes, Richard still believes there is “no comparison” between 1980s and today, in terms of the infrastructure available to support science and the opportunities for researchers to pursue their passion. “When you are at the lab and writing papers and reading papers it is immaterial what is happening outside the door, said Richard. “We may not have as many opportunities for new grants and new things, but there will always be interest and passion for doing things. That won’t change at all.”