Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita
The first time I met Paul Bach-y-Rita I was embraced by his sense of wonderment in science and in life. I was captivated by the twinkle in his eyes and his grand and graceful spirit of discovery. He had an amazing habit of thinking outside the box of current scientific understanding and I came to understand that he was far head of those current scientific times. Paul was a genius and a more humble human being you will never find. I am forever grateful and honored to have worked with such a man and if not for Paul, my life would not be as it is today. Thank you my friend. Without a doubt, Paul is the person who made everything I am doing now possible.
Without Paul’s visionary spirit, his wealth of compassion and desire to make a difference in this world, I would not be who I am today. I can truly say that I loved this man, always will. I am eternally honored to have shared the experience of the developments of his vision and to now be able to spread his seeds of hope as far and wide as I can. Thank you Paul, rest in peace and may I always have your spirit and legacy as my guiding light.
Paul was a neuroscientist in the field of neuroplasticity whose work changed a lot of ways scientists considered the brains capabilities. Although first proposed in the late 19th century, Paul was one of the first scientists to seriously study the idea of neuroplasticity and to introduce sensory substitution as a tool to treat patients suffering from neurological disorders.
In 1958, Bach-y-Rita’s father, Pedro, suffered a stroke which caused paralysis to one side of his body and damaged his ability to speak. George Bach-y-Rita—a psychiatrist and Paul’s brother—succeeded in treating Pedro so that he was able to lead a normal life, despite the opinion of several doctors that this was impossible. When Pedro died, an autopsy, performed by Dr. Mary Jane Aguilar revealed that Paul’s father Pedro had suffered a major stroke and suffered severe damage to a large portion of his brain stem which had not repaired itself after the stroke. The fact that he had made such a significant recovery suggested that his brain had reorganized itself, providing evidence for neuroplasticity. This evidence set Paul into the field of neuroplasticity, and sensory substitution.
Paul is said to be the first to propose the concept of sensory substitution to treat patients with disabilities, mostly those caused by neurological problems. One of the first applications of sensory substitution he created was a chair which allowed blind people to ‘see’. The famous trials he conducted in 1969 are now regarded to be the first form of experimental evidence for neuroplasticity and the feasibility of sensory substitution. The chair he used had a bank of four hundred vibrating plates resting against the back of a blind person. These plates would vibrating in connection with a camera that was placed above the chair, pointing forwards. Depending on the pattern of stimulation coming from the camera, it enabled the user to “see”, often helping them to be able to recognize an object coming towards the camera. Because of the way the patients interpreted this information, Paul suggested this was an example of neuroplasticity because he believed the signals sent to the brain from the skin via touch were being processed in the visual cortex.
Later in his career, Paul and his team created a device which enabled patients with damaged vestibular systems to regain their ability to remain balanced. This is when I had the great fortune of meeting him. Balance was regained by using electrical stimulation placed on the tongue that reacted to a motion sensor, an accelerometer, that was attached to a hat worn by the patient. This application enabled patients to remain balanced without the equipment after several weeks use. Here is a picture from a New York Times article of me wearing this device:
One of Paul’s last applications of neuroplasticity was to treat patients with damaged vestibular systems meaning they were unable to remain balanced. The device he and his team created that is now known as BrainPort consisted of a group of accelerometers positioned on the patients and linked to a portable computer that the patient wore around his or her neck.
The first portable device looked like this:
Then the device was developed into this, the current version:
Along with the development of the balance device created through the work of the company Paul created, Wicab, was a similar device that enables persons who are blind to see using a camera attached to a pair of sunglasses that feeds “visual” information to the tongue. That device looks like this:
Photo by Angela Richardson for UW Arts Institute
Currently the Brainport Visual device is available for sale and use in Europe. US FDA approval is pending. Unfortunately, work on pursuing the balance application of the Brainport have been abandoned.
Sadly, Paul passed way November 20th, 2006. I am saddened that he isn’t here to see the results of his work. He would be amazed and perhaps saddened at what has happened to his invention, his genius, and his vision for the Brainport. He is deeply missed by many.
For a beautiful and touching tribute to Paul please visit this link “Remembering Leaders” published by The National Leadership Consortium in Sensory Disabilities: http://www.salus.edu/nclvi/honoring/bach_y_rita.htm
You can find several references to the amazing work of Paul Bach-y-Rita throughout the internet. I encourage you to take some time to learn more about him, the books he wrote, papers published, and his research successes. He truly is an icon and a man who shall always be remembered for his amazing contributions to the world of science and rehabilitation.