This former building belonging to drug developer Merck Serono will soon house a center devoted to neuroprosthetics.

This former building belonging to drug developer Merck Serono will soon house a center devoted to neuroprosthetics.

Cathrin Badzung - Merck KGaA Germany, Corporate Communications [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Q&A: U.S. brain-machine interface expert to direct new Wyss Center in Geneva

Neuroscientist John Donoghue of Brown University has spent the past decade working on brain-machine interfaces that allow paralyzed people to control prosthetic limbs using only their minds, a project called BrainGate. This summer, he’s packing his bags for Switzerland to become director of the new Wyss Center for Bio- and Neuro-Engineering in Geneva, part of the resurrection of an extensive research facility abandoned by pharma giant Merck Serono in 2012. The firm sold the site last year to Swiss billionaires Hansjörg Wyss and Ernesto Bertarelli—Bertarelli used to run the biotech firm Serono before Merck purchased it. The new center, funded with more than $100 million from a foundation started by Wyss, will host more than a dozen new laboratories devoted to research in areas such as neuroengineering and regenerative engineering. Science talked to Donoghue about the move. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What’s the mission of the new Wyss Center and your vision for the program as director?

A: The goal of the new Wyss Center is to make neuroprosthetics that will be practical in the real world. A lot of times we do things that look really cool to the media, but are they something that will help people in everyday life? Sometimes they’re not, or sometimes the barriers to getting them out are so formidable that they don’t get out.

BrainGate is obviously why I’m so closely aligned with the mission. We have been working for now a solid decade in the human realm trying to get a product that is really able to be used by people every day, and we’re not there yet.

Wyss has really quite substantial resources to provide a stable base for projects like that. The closest thing in the U.S. might be Janelia Farm, where people come to do microscopy because they have exceptionally high-quality instruments that aren’t available elsewhere.

Q: Do you think that Europe provides a more stable environment for neuroscience research?

A: The U.S. has absolutely extraordinary scientists and neuroscience is amazing here. I am a little disappointed that the U.S. is not investing as heavily as other countries, though. If you look at countries that are investing heavily in industry, education, and science, it’s Germany and Switzerland. Now tell me the two strongest economies in the world? Germany and Switzerland.

Q: Officially you are on a 1-year sabbatical from Brown. Do you anticipate coming back to Brown in the future?

A: I don’t know. I love Brown, and I never thought I would even think of going someplace else, but to have the chance to shape something like this—it’s hard to turn something that wonderful down.