Paul Bach-y-Rita, M.D. (1934–2006)
Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita was a neuroscientist who pioneered the field of neuroplasticity. He was born in 1934 in New York City and attained his medical degree at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in 1959. In 1983, he was recruited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as Chair of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Paul’s understanding of brain plasticity was shaped by his own father’s experience. In 1959, his father Pedro, a poet and scholar, suffered a stroke that left him mostly paralyzed and unable to speak. At the time, stroke rehabilitation programs were very limited because no one believed that the brain could truly recover. Paul’s brother George, however, did not give up. Because he had no preconceived notions regarding rehabilitation, he took a fresh approach. George turned simple life routines such as sweeping and scrubbing pots into motor training exercises. Pedro re-learned to walk and to talk and experienced a remarkable and unprecedented recovery. He returned to teaching, hiking, and enjoying his life.
After his father’s death in 1965, Paul began to think of his father’s extraordinary recovery in terms of the brain’s plasticity. At the time, scientists believed that the adult brain was hard-wired, and each function was controlled by a distinct area of the brain. The belief that the adult brain was plastic, capable of reorganizing and changing, was revolutionary and considered scientific heresy. The extent of the tissue damage that Paul’s father suffered during his stroke was so extensive that his functional recovery could only be explained by his brain’s reorganizing itself in response to the motor training. Shaped by his father’s experience and his own studies, Paul channeled his enthusiasm and scientific rigor to the study of neuroplasticity.
In the 1960s, Paul developed a chair that helped congenitally blind individuals to see. Blind subjects were placed behind a camera, and the camera’s image was translated to electrical signals that stimulated 400 small touch sensors that vibrated against the blind subjects’ back. The pattern of vibration from the “tactile-vision device” allowed the person to detect faces, shadows, and objects. This phenomenal work was published in 1969 in Nature, the world’s foremost research journal.
The success of the tactile-vision device encouraged Paul to further explore the capabilities of the human brain. His machine, which allowed the blind to see, proved that touch signals were being redirected to the visual cortex, indicating that the brain was changing and adapting to new sensory input. Although his theory of plasticity was in direct conflict with the prevailing notion that the adult brain could not change, Paul devoted the rest of his career to understanding neuroplasticity.
When Paul was recruited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he established a research program aimed at sensory substitution and late brain plasticity. Partnering with engineering colleagues Kurt Kaczmarek and Mitchell Tyler, this program grew into what was known as the Tactile Display Laboratory. Over the years, the lab expanded its scope and has evolved to become the current Tactile Communication and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory, a center for the study and application of neuroplasticity.
Since the tactile-vision chair, Paul and his Tactile Display Lab colleagues developed several sensory-substitution devices including those focused on using touch sensations on the fingertips or abdomen as a way to send visual messages to the brain. For example, he collaborated on developing a glove that allowed visually impaired individuals to read a computer screen (GraphiGlove).
To improve touch in individuals with limited skin sensations, such as patients with leprosy, Paul developed a glove that sent touch signals to a healthy part of their skin. He worked with NASA to enhance the sensory capabilities of gloves to help astronauts feel small objects and perform tasks while in space.
In the late 1990’s, Paul explored the tongue as a unique, yet powerful, receptor for touch. The Tactile Display Lab research eventually resulted in the Tongue Display Unit (TDU), the first device to present electrotactile information to the tongue. The TDU, first tested in 1999, has helped blind people see images and has helped balance-impaired individuals regain vestibular control. In 2001, neuroscientist Yuri Danilov joined the Tactile Display Lab team, which subsequently launched the broad-based research program in neurorehabilitation that exists today.
Paul’s work with sensory substitution and neurorehabilitation has unlimited potential and far reaching applications. For example, the research program he directed resulted in a device for Navy SEALs to help orient their bodies underwater, and the TDU has been tested as a tool to improve a surgeon’s accuracy.
In 2004, Paul Bach-y-Rita was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died in his home on November 20, 2006. He built a great legacy of groundbreaking science, creative approaches, and unbridled enthusiasm. His work and ideas live on and inspire the research of TCNL today. We are guided by his favorite quotes, “You see with your brain, not with your eyes,” and “Just give the brain information and it will figure it out.”