Driving While Thinking

Driving While Thinking

Enabled by an innovative technology developed by doctors at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a young man paralyzed in a car accident uses his thoughts to exercise basic physical movements and even to drive a race car.
Enabled by an innovative technology developed by doctors at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a young man paralyzed in a car accident uses his thoughts to exercise basic physical movements and even to drive a race car.
Photo courtesy of David McMillan, The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis


Nine years later, Zuniga is back behind the wheel of his life. With the help of a surgically implanted braincomputer interface (BCI) that can decipher his thoughts, Zuniga recently drove an adapted NASCAR race car around Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado, just by thinking about grasping the accelerator. He’s also able to connect his BCI to an adaptive glove each day to help him regain some control of his right hand to open doors, feed himself, write short notes, and brush his teeth. Zuniga’s new lease on life is thanks to an ingenious technology developed by doctors at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a center of excellence at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

German Aldana Zuniga
German Aldana Zuniga uses his adaptive glove and brain-computer interface (BCI) to grasp a permanent marker.
Photo courtesy of Rob Camarena

After his accident, Zuniga spent six months in the hospital and a year in rehabilitation while working to complete his junior year of high school. From other survivors of spinal cord injuries, he learned the importance of staying active to prevent more muscle spasms or atrophy. One day, while exercising in the gym of The Miami Project and participating in other clinical trials, he noticed a newsletter ad about a study recruiting people with spinal cord injuries to volunteer for a BCI implant.

Zuniga applied, met the strict qualification criteria, and once he turned 21, went in for surgery.

The procedure marked the first time that doctors at The Miami Project had implanted a BCI solely for research purposes, according to David McMillan, Ph.D. ’20, director of education and outreach for The Miami Project, as well as an assistant professor of neurological surgery at the Miller School.

“Finding someone brave enough to get a brain implant when they don’t need it was tricky,” says McMillan. “There was no guaranteed benefit, but German’s courage and exploratory spirit were amazing.”

Two weeks after his surgery, Zuniga met with the research team, which includes study leader Abhishek Prasad, a biomedical engineering associate professor; Dr. Jonathan Jagid, professor of clinical neurosurgery; Dr. Michael Ivan, associate professor of neurosurgery; Dr. Iahn Cajigas, a former neurosurgery resident; and Kevin Davis, a graduate student in Prasad’s neural interfaces lab at The Miami Project.

With the BCI in place, Davis, Prasad, and others designed software to decode Zuniga’s brain signals from the device. They asked him to think about opening and closing his hand, then trained the BCI to pick up those unique signals from the part of the brain responsible for moving his right hand. In time, their work allowed Zuniga to not only control the glove, but also to use his BCI to control a robotic walking device on a treadmill at The Miami Project.

Davis—a self-taught software engineer who studied neuroscience in college—then figured out how to make the decoder portable so Zuniga could use the BCI out of the lab. Davis even developed a cell phone app that connects to the BCI via Bluetooth and prompts Zuniga to think about opening and closing his hand. Then, a minicomputer in Zuniga’s backpack connects his brain signals to control a device—typically the adaptive glove.

“The BCI extracts the data from the brain, and then it sends information to another device like the glove, or in the most recent case, a car accelerator,” explains Davis, a student in the M.D./Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program.

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Davis finished refining the portable BCI decoder. This was particularly fortuitous because Zuniga could practice his new skills at home throughout the past two years, and Davis could refine the software remotely when needed. He is also able to collect data on Zuniga from home now and is gathering evidence about how useful the BCI setup could be for others with spinal cord injuries.

Jagid notes that Zuniga is the only person with a spinal cord injury he knows of with this mobile setup. Other BCI patients typically have a visible device protruding from their head and must be in a lab to connect it to a machine that decodes their brain signals.

There are myriad benefits to the flexibility of Zuniga’s transportable BCI, McMillan adds.

“Other people may have BCIs with a wider signal that can send more advanced commands [from their brain], but because this one is simpler, it allows German to use it in a variety of contexts,” McMillan says. “He is using it to do simple activities of daily living, and to control really advanced robotics, like an 850-horsepower NASCAR race car.”

Abhishek Prasad, Kevin Davis, German Aldana Zuniga, and Jonathan Jagid
Abhishek Prasad, Kevin Davis, German Aldana Zuniga, and Jonathan Jagid
Photo courtesy of Rob Camarena

Zuniga in the Driver’s Seat

This spring, Falci Adaptive Motorsports and its founder Dr. Scott Falci, a neurosurgeon based at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, offered Zuniga a special opportunity: to drive one of their adapted race cars. At the time of his accident, Zuniga had yet to obtain his license—and it had been a longtime dream of his to do so.

Falci had developed a vehicle that allows a driver to speed up or slow down by blowing or sipping air through a straw, and steer using a helmet equipped with a gyrometer. Davis’ team adapted the technology, substituting the existing system for one that controlled the car using Zuniga’s thoughts.

Davis and the rest of the team flew with Zuniga to Denver and drove down to Colorado Springs in an adaptive van.

“We trained a handful of times before we left, but German was still just using the same motor imagery of opening and closing his hand, which he’s quite familiar with,” Davis explains. “He just needed to figure out the sensitivity of it to apply to the gas.”

While there was a safety driver in the car with him, Zuniga was exhilarated by the experience of driving a race car.

“To see how I was able to control a car—it’s something I never would’ve thought that this device could make possible.”

The next step for the team is to expand the applications of Zuniga’s currently implanted BCI by trying to extract more unique signals from his brain. This could allow for more complex function, such as the use of both hands.

At the same time, the team is researching other brain-computer interfaces that may allow future patients to have more freedom and restoration of function.

Zuniga had always hoped to attend college after graduating from high school in 2015. After experiencing the power of technology, he decided to become a computer science major at Miami-Dade College and now hopes he can program brain devices to help other people like himself gain mobility.

“Working with the BCI sparked an interest in me because I saw what you could do with technology,” Zuniga says. “It has given me the hunger to want to help make it better and even to create a new device one day.”

After the first lap, I lost my fear and the sense of freedom was amazing.

German Aldana Zuniga
Photo courtesy of David McMillan