Date February 8, 2022
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Brown professor wins CERF Medical Engineering Prize for ‘Braingate+SoftRobotics’ project

Dr. Leigh Hochberg is part of an award-winning team that is combining soft robotic devices with brain-computer interface technology to help people with ALS.

Photo of Leigh Hochberg
Leigh Hochberg

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The Cullen Education and Research Fund has awarded the inaugural CERF Medical Engineering Prize for ALS Research to the members of BrainGate+SoftRobotics, a research team based at Brown University, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. The team is creating a series of technologies intended to improve arm and hand function for people with muscle weakness and paralysis, including people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The honor is accompanied by a monetary award of 500,000 euros, which team members Dr. Leigh Hochberg from Brown and MGH, Dr. Sabrina Paganoni from MGH and Conor Walsh from Harvard have designated for distribution to their institutions to support their collaborative research.

ALS, also known as motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, leads to the injury and loss of neurons in the brain and spinal cord, leading to paralysis. The CERF Medical Engineering Prize was established to recognize outstanding research and to encourage the development of technologies that maintain or restore function of the arm and hand for people with ALS.

“We are delighted to announce the BrainGate+SoftRobotics team as the winner of this year’s CERF Engineering Prize,” said Hazel Cullen, manager of the CERF prize. “This important and groundbreaking work will change the lives of those living with ALS by giving them back some of the independence that is taken away by this awful disease.”

The winning team is working together to create wearable soft robotics that maintain the function of the arm and hand, and can be controlled entirely by a person’s intention to move. The soft robotic system, already in development, can detect subtle movements — for example, the partial flexion of an index finger — and pneumatically actuate a glove that quietly and smoothly completes the closing of the hand to grasp a coffee cup. The research team is working to combine the soft robotic technology with the investigational BrainGate system, a tiny array of electrodes that can sense and decode signals from the brain’s motor cortex. The team aims to use signals from the brain to drive the soft robotics, restoring people’s ability to reach and grasp.

“On behalf of our BrainGate team, I’m so grateful to the Cullen Family for their visionary and engaged support of research to help people with ALS,” said Hochberg, a professor in Brown’s School of Engineering, a researcher in the Carney Institute for Brain Science and director of the BrainGate clinical trial. “Brain-computer interfaces, including the system being developed by our BrainGate consortium, hold tremendous potential to restore communication and mobility for people with paralysis. Together with Conor and his incredible lab, we are working every day to, quite literally, turn thought into action.”

By combining a brain-computer interface system with soft robotics, the team hopes to further expand the promise of neural prosthetic technology.

“Soft robotics can quietly, smoothly and unobtrusively provide for either rehabilitation or restorative function for people with ALS, stroke or spinal cord injury,” said Walsh, a professor at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Watching and listening to end users evaluate our soft robotic systems is incredibly inspiring. Their ideas and feedback continue to push the technology further and faster with an unyielding focus on developing portable systems that restore highest priority functions for people with tetraplegia. Our work with the BrainGate team is leading to a palette of coordinated technologies that will provide the right amount of assistance at the right moment for people with ALS.”

Paganoni, a physician-scientist at the Healey & AMG Center for ALS at MGH, thanked clinical trial participants for playing a crucial role in developing new approaches to helping people with ALS.

“We are grateful to all people living with paralysis who choose to participate in these ongoing clinical trials,” she said. “It’s only through their generous efforts that we can discover and develop such revolutionary technologies.”

CAUTION: Investigational Device. Limited by Federal law to investigational use.