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Twenty years ago, restoring limb function in a paraplegic may have been an idea that existed only in the realm of science fiction. But today, thanks to the BrainGate project — involving a team of researchers that includes several Brown professors — the idea is close to becoming a reality.

The primary goal of the project, which has garnered incredible media attention in recent years, has always been "to develop neurotechnology" that "will help people with paralysis, limb loss and neurological diseases and injuries to restore loss of communication, mobility and independence," said Associate Professor of Engineering Leigh Hochberg '90.

The first incarnation of the BrainGate system, which first underwent clinical trials in 2004, required a chip to be implanted into the patient's brain and then connected to a computer by a series of wires. Although the device effectively converted the patient's brain signals into movement and allowed them to click on icons and perform a variety of functions on the computers, the technology was rather bulky, said John Donoghue PhD'79 P'09 P'12, professor of neuroscience and co-founder of the company that created the BrainGate project.

Donoghue explained that the next stage of the research focused on developing a much smaller device. This chip would be implanted into the head, where it could wirelessly transmit brain signals to a wide range of devices. "We're interested in developing the best possible control signal," he said.

"One of the challenges with the systems as they exist now is that they require a switch to operate," added Hochberg, one of the principal investigators on the BrainGate research team. He said that current studies on functional electrical stimulation systems would be very helpful to the project. Some of this research is being conducted at Case Western University, another BrainGate collaborator.

While laboratory research may at times seem distinct from the advances in technology to outsiders, Donoghue, who is also the director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science, said they are incredibly connected.

"One piece that people don't fully understand is how basic lab research can lead to great breakthroughs (because) sometimes it's hard to see where basic science research will lead to," he said. "As a consequence of the neurophysiological research that was done, we got to a point where we could translate this research into a device that would allow paralyzed people to interact with the world and move again," he said.

Another area the project is looking into is the possibility of hooking the brain up directly to muscles. In this scenario, the brain would transmit a signal to a stimulator, which would connect to a muscle and cause it to move according to the brain's message, Donoghue said.

Donoghue, who spent the beginning of February in Australia giving various lectures and participating in a conference held by the Australian Neuroscience Society, said "the ultimate goal" is to get the technology to a point where "you wouldn't notice the difference between a person who never had an injury and a person who had an injury but then had the implant."

BrainGate is now entering its second stage of clinical trials at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Exactly how it develops is yet to be seen, but team members are optimistic. 

"We have made nice advances in the research, and I'm pleased with the progress we're making," said Hochberg.


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