Researchers discuss BrainGate, restorative neurotechnology at Brown and beyond

In a conversation with leaders of Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, two Brown neuroengineers explored how brain-computer interfaces promise to help restore movement in people with brain or spinal disorders.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In 2012, a research team led by neuroengineers from Brown University published a landmark study in the field of restorative neurotechnology. As part of a clinical trial, two people who had lost the use of their limbs were able to move a robotic arm just by thinking about moving their own arms and hands. Through an investigational technology called BrainGate, one participant was able to raise a bottle to her mouth and take a drink, the first time in 15 years she had been able to do so.

The breakthrough was made possible by a small implant — a BrainGate brain-computer interface (BCI) — that listens to the signals produced by the brain’s motor cortex and uses computers to decode those signals. Years of pioneering BCI research at Brown resulted in the 2012 breakthrough, and the work has continued ever since.

On Tuesday, Oct. 13, Brown engineering professors David Borton and Leigh Hochberg sat down for a virtual discussion about the future of restorative neurotechnology as well as its history at Brown. Neuroscientists Diane Lipscombe, director of Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, and Christopher Moore, associate director, hosted the event, which is part of a series called Carney Conversations

Hochberg is one of the leaders of the BrainGate collaboration, a multi-institutional group of physicians, neuroscientists, engineers and others exploring BCIs as a means of helping people with neurological disorders. Hochberg leads the BrainGate clinical trial, which continues to build upon the work published in 2012. More recently, the team showed that a BrainGate BCI combined with electrical stimulation allowed a man with tetraplegia to move his arm and hand. In other research, the team showed people could directly control tablet computers by thinking about moving a mouse. 

“When I walk into that person’s room and I see somebody who yesterday or last week was able to walk, able to speak, able to move, but suddenly can’t move and can’t speak... the motivation is clear. How can we develop technologies that can tomorrow — not next week, but tomorrow — restore communication, restore mobility and restore independence?

Leigh Hochberg Professor of engineering

Hochberg discussed how he became interested in restorative neurotechnology while an undergraduate at Brown, working with BCI pioneer John Donoghue, whose lab first developed the BrainGate technology. Hochberg said that it was in basic neuroscience classes and labs at Brown that the neurological underpinnings of movement first began to fascinate him.

“To see a rat whisker get wiggled and to listen to the sound of neurons firing, particularly for a percussionist, that’s Mozart,” Hochberg said. “I knew then that I wanted to not just hear that sound, but to understand how the brain works and to understand how to repair it when it’s not working in the way that it could.”

Borton said he got hooked on the field while visiting Brown as a prospective Ph.D. student. He met with Donoghue, a professor of neuroscience and engineering, who showed him the BrainGate BCI in the lab. 

“He said, ‘today we’re putting this in the brains of people to help them move again, but look at all these wires!’” Borton recalled. “How are we going to... leverage our knowledge of engineering and tool-building to make this a much more streamlined process and gain true access... to the brain?”

That set Borton to work with his Ph.D. advisor Arto Nurmikko on a wireless neurosensor, which they unveiled in 2013. In 2016, Borton and colleagues used a version of that device for research showing that a BCI combined with coordinated stimulation of the spine can restore walking motion in nonhuman primates with paralysis. 

Recently, Borton’s lab was awarded a contract by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop an “intelligent spinal interface” that might one day help bridge the gap in neural function created by spinal injuries in people. In addition to movement disorders, he also studies BCIs as a means to better understand and treat psychiatric conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder. 

During the discussion, Moore pointed out that talk in the public sphere about BCI technology can often drift into the realm of science fiction. But Hochberg, who is also a critical care neurologist, has a much more grounded view of the field’s future. He said he sees the need for restorative technology every time he walks into the clinic.

“When I walk into that person’s room and I see somebody who yesterday or last week was able to walk, able to speak, able to move, but suddenly can’t move and can’t speak... the motivation is clear. How can we develop technologies that can tomorrow — not next week, but tomorrow — restore communication, restore mobility and restore independence? As we reach for the most exciting future technology, there’s also a key imperative to get the stuff done now that’s going to restore function in the near term.” 

When asked where he thought the field would be in 20 years, Borton said he hopes BCI technology will help to foster a new approach to understanding the brain and treating disorders. Currently, he said, researchers tend to treat the brain as modular, with separate systems controlling movement, thought, emotion and other activities. But Borton hopes BCIs can lead to a better understanding of the brain as a whole. 

“It’s a huge dynamic system, and we need to really treat it that way from the bottom up and the top down,” Borton said. “That I think is where I hope we are in 20 years as a field. There will be lots of different technologies developed to help get us there, and a lot of therapeutic applications that will come out of that way of thinking. But it's going to take a lot to get there.”