Neuroscience does not easily lend itself to singing and dancing, but that's the unusual experience the audience witnessed at Everett Company's Brain Cafe on locked-in syndrome Wednesday. The cafe was part of Everett's five-day Brain Storm residency, which focuses on the intersection of neuroscience and art.
The performance, held at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, began with an invitation for the audience and performers to greet one another with a contra dance and ended on a lighthearted note with a song-and-dance number to Gene Kelly's "Make Way for Tomorrow." But in between, the serious topic of paralysis was explored through the personal story of Margaret Worthen, coupled with a talk by John Simeral, assistant professor of research in the School of Engineering and chief systems engineer for BrainGate2.
The opening movement piece overlaid dance with a monologue by Nancy Worthen to depict the story of her daughter Margaret, who suffered a brainstem stroke several days before her college graduation and was left completely paralyzed. Her condition, in which she is mentally aware but paralyzed and unable to communicate in conventional ways, is termed locked-in syndrome.
The dance interwove memories from before and after the stroke. Scenes of animated motion were contrasted with periods of stillness in which the dancer playing Margaret was helped by dancers dressed in scrubs.
Afterward, Simeral presented the current research of BrainGate2, which is focused on developing technology that allows paralyzed patients to control computer cursors or even prosthetic limbs with just their brain activity, allowing for increased mobility and communication. This technology works using an implanted array of microelectrodes in the brain of a patient. When the patient imagines performing an action, neurons in the motor cortex of the brain fire in a pattern that would signal the body to move in a certain way. The sensor reads this activity, and an algorithm determines how a mechanical arm should move.
Currently, the technology is in a safety testing phase and is not available to the public. In the future, the team hopes the technology will be perfected and available, he said, and future research directions could include circumnavigating broken nerve connections in the spinal cord to directly innervate muscles using brain activity, he said.
"When will the wireless be available?" joked Cathy Hutchinson, a BrainGate2's test subject who was also in the audience, spelling out her question using an eye-tracker board.
While conducting research for Brain Storm, Providence-based Everett Company wanted a forum in which they could learn more about the brain from leading scientists, said Dorothy Jungels, artistic director and founder of Everett.
Brain Cafe started as the "opportunity to interact with scientists and artists and see what we have in common," Jungels told The Herald. "Scientists invent, artists invent. We're curious and playful." Then people like Margaret's mother started coming forward with stories they wanted to share. Once, a woman with Tourette's syndrome came forward to collaborate on a hip-hop dance based on her tics. Soon, the cafe idea grew beyond its original conception and became a way to interact with the public as well as with scientists, with the goal of connecting science with the real human heart of the issues, she told The Herald.
Hannah Benenson '15 said she liked how the event "intertwined emotion and science," adding that people often lose sight of the emotional center of a topic such as this by being too focused on its intellectual side.
A dance can show "in a way that is easier than words how hard that moment is after a person has had an accident," Worthen said as part of her commentary after the piece.
"Storytelling is at the heart of human life," Jungels told The Herald. Art is about making you feel, and that's what this performance was for, she said.