V E TE R AN S AFFAI R S & M I LITARY M E D I CI N E O UTLO O K
HEALING BRAINS AND BODIES VA’s Center for Neurorestoration and Neurotechnology By Craig Collins
t was a historic milestone, reported around the world, when it happened about a decade ago: Using the new investigational brain-computer interface known as BrainGate, two people with tetraplegia – stroke victims suffering paralysis in all four limbs and the torso – were able to move a prosthetic arm and perform basic tasks using only their minds. The BrainGate demonstration had been years in the making. By 2002, a team of Brown University neuroscientists had developed the system’s basics: Using a tiny electrode array the size of a baby aspirin, implanted in the brain just beneath the skull, they detected the electrical signature of neurons firing in a specific area of the brain and translated these impulses into signals that activated and controlled an external device. Together with a spinoff company from the Brown lab (Cyberkinetics), investigators from Brown, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and the Providence VA Medical Center (PVAMC) began clinical research with the new technology in 2004, and showed that a person with tetraplegia could control a computer cursor on a screen and perform simple tasks such as opening emails, operating a television, and opening and closing a prosthetic hand. The BrainGate trials combined the expertise of dozens of people throughout the VA and academic research communities, and other VA clinicians and researchers were using some of the same core technologies – electroencephalography (EEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computational neuroscience, for example – to inform and validate their own investigations. It seemed natural that this knowledge and capability should be gathered, under the umbrella of VA’s Rehabilitation Research and Development (RR&D), into a single center that could leverage its impact.
A mock-up of a BrainGate interface on display at the Boston Science Museum in October 2005.
PHOTO BY PAUL WICKS VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS