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Super humans

Film makes heroes of biomedical engineers and the people whose lives they change

By Robert L. Smith

You might not expect a movie that celebrates biomedical engineering to fill a theater. But this was a special film premiering in a special place — the city pioneering “human fusion.” 

Nearly 500 people filed into the Hanna Theater in Playhouse Square Jan. 30. They came for the Midwest premiere of I Am Human, a documentary that show-cases life-changing technologies being pioneered by hospital and university researchers. 

Case scientists and engineers, many of them family and colleagues of cast members, filled the seats. They saw a movie that introduced experimental engineering in poignant, often dramatic fashion. 

I Am Human traces the medical odyssey of three people who are helped mightily by brain implants. It also introduces Case biomedical engineering faculty who are pushing the envelope; notably alumnus Dustin Tyler, PhD ’99, Robert Kirsch, PhD, and Bolu Ajiboye, PhD; as well as their research partners from University Hospitals and the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Center at the Cleveland VA Medical Center. 

This depiction of “team science” in University Circle is one of the film’s vital messages, according to Kirsch, the chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. 

“It takes a village to do the kind of work that we do,” he told the audience just before the film began. 

Soon into the movie we meet Anne, a Baby Boomer afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease, and Stephen, who lost his sight midlife because of a neurological condition. Both are helped by a brain implant that restores a measure of their former selves. But the star of the show is Bill Kochevar, a fifty something Cleveland veteran who was paralyzed in a bicycle accident. 

Kochevar volunteered for BrainGate2, the human fusion trial led by the Case engineers. He dreams of being able to eat a plate of food on his own. 

As the film loosely details, researchers implanted a computer interface into his brain, then used mathematical algorithms to translate his thoughts into electrical impulses that they used to trigger muscles in his arms and hands. The aim: to allow Kochevar to use the power of thought to move his limbs. 

The film reaches its climax when Kochevar, his face a mask of concentration, raises a forkful of potatoes to his mouth. The theater erupted in applause. 

Kochever passed away in 2017, a Cleveland research hero. The scientists and engineers have since begun clinical trials on a second, more sophisticated study of the BrainGate technology. Called the Reconnecting the Hand and Arm to the Brain (ReHAB) System, it is supported by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. 

I Am Human, meanwhile, continues to screen worldwide, introducing the emerging power of biomedical engineering — the kind being developed at Case. 

Learn more about the film and screenings HERE.

Dustin Tyler

Bolu Ajiboye

Robert Kirsch

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