Hochberg, pioneer in brain-computer technology, receives 2022 VA Magnuson Award

Leigh Hochberg, Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development Center for Neurorestoration and Neurotechnology (CfNN) in Providence, R.I., has received the 2022 VA Paul B. Magnuson Award for his work to improve the lives of Veterans and others who experience stroke, ALS, spinal cord injury, and neurological disease. The Magnuson Award recognizes outstanding achievement in VA rehabilitation research.

Leigh HochbergHochberg is also a critical care and vascular neurologist and Director of the MGH Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery; Professor of Engineering in the School of Engineering and Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown University; and Senior Lecturer on Neurology at Harvard Medical School. He directs the BrainGate clinical trials, conducted by a team of clinical and basic neuroscience and neuroengineering researchers from across the nation. 

Hochberg and his colleagues at CfNN are developing cutting-edge technologies to assist Veterans with paralysis to navigate their environments and communicate with others. The center is a collaboration between VA Providence Healthcare System, Brown University, Butler Hospital, Lifespan, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Hochberg’s research program combines engineering, neuroscience, and clinical medicine to design new technologies to help people with neurological injury or disease live a fuller life.

“Dr. Hochberg is an internationally respected leader in the field of neurorehabilitation and a recognized expert in the areas of neurotechnology, brain-computer interfaces, and neurocritical care. He has worked diligently to stimulate collaborative research across the VA research enterprise,” says Dr. Gaurav Choudhary, associate chief of staff, VA Providence Health Care System.

Hochberg is a researcher at the Providence VA Medical Center in Rhode Island, with more than 17 years’ expertise in neuroscience, neuroengineering, and neurorestoration. In 2006, Hochberg published groundbreaking results from the first two participants in the BrainGate clinical trial. He and his colleagues demonstrated that people with cervical spinal cord injury could control a computer cursor or robotic arm using their brain activity alone. Investigators implanted electrodes in participants’ motor cortex to transmit neural impulses to a computer, allowing the participants to control external devices just by thinking about the movement of their own hand.

“This breakthrough in human neuroscience set the stage for intracortical BCI research and highlighted the potential to help people with impairments of communication and mobility,” notes Dr. Krishna Shenoy, director of the Neural Prosthetic Systems Lab at Stanford University.

BrainGate is a research consortium made up of investigators from a wide range of institutions and scientific disciplines who work together to help people who have lost their ability to communicate or navigate their environment. Influenced by Hochberg’s leadership, the consortium works collaboratively across disciplines to develop and test new approaches to decode neural signals in individuals with paralysis.

Hochberg’s team works to help people with severe speech or motor impairment to gain more control over their environments. The research focuses on assistive communication, movement restoration, neurotechnology, and speech restoration, among other areas. They have also tested wireless technology that can transmit neural activity to nearby receivers, paving the way for eventual home use of such technologies.

In 2021, the BrainGate team at Stanford and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute demonstrated an intracortical BCI that decoded brain activity and displayed the intended handwriting of a study participant who was unable to use his hands. The participant achieved a typing speed of 90 characters per minute, with 94% accuracy. The study, published in Nature, was recognized internationally as a breakthrough in the speed and flexibility made possible through BCI-enabled communication.

Hochberg and the BrainGate team have garnered multiple awards, to include: the Cullen Education and Research Fund’s Medical Engineering Prize for ALS research; first prize in the International Brain-Computer Interface Society; the Distinguished Medical Achievement Award from Emory University; the Derek Denny-Brown Young Neurological Scholar Award; the Martin Prize in Basic Research; and the 2013 Herbert Pardes Award for Excellence in Clinical Research.

“I’m honored and truly grateful to receive the Magnuson Award and to work among the cadre of scientists at CfNN, and across the nation, who are dedicated to improving Veterans’ health,” says Hochberg. “Every day I have the privilege of learning from incredible clinicians and researchers in the BrainGate consortium who continue to discover and develop new approaches to restore communication and mobility. And, most importantly, I want to highlight our extraordinary clinical trial participants, who each deserve tremendous credit—they enroll in this ongoing study not seeking personal benefit, but to help other people with neurologic disease or injury.”

[Editor’s note: CAUTION: Investigational Device. Limited by Federal Law to Investigational Use.]