Written by: Brett Starr '23
Edited by: Kaitlyn Mundy '23 & Jasmine Shum '24
Even in today’s world, as science evolves faster than ever, the thought of functional robotic arms can seem utterly science-fictional. However, here in Providence, these things are closer to reality than you would think. BrainGate, a research effort pioneered by Brown professors, has labored tirelessly for the past decade to build what is effectively mind-controlled technology using brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs. Led by engineering professor Leigh Hochberg, the organization works with people who have lost control of their limbs, and their technology reads signals from the cortices of their brains and translates them into real-life actions, whether it be a mouse on a computer screen or--you guessed it!—a robotic arm.
One of BrainGate’s landmark achievements came to light in a paper published in Nature in 2012 . About five years prior, two people with tetraplegia had been implanted with neural interface systems (NIS), complex devices which translate signals from the brain’s motor cortex, which controls movement, directly into command signals for assistive devices. Using BCIs, these people were able to complete an array of astonishing tasks. One, for instance, was able to move a robotic arm with her mind to drink coffee out of a bottle. She also moved a computer mouse and “clicked on” an application. Even more impressive is that she was able to perform these tasks without training; she used the same mental processes that she had used before she lost control of her arms. For BrainGate researchers, this was a breath of relief; it confirmed that restoring lost arm movement was indeed a feasible mission.
Around the time of these findings, BrainGate expanded to other institutions, including Stanford University and Case Western Reserve University . Research has been ongoing ever since, even throughout 2020, as the pandemic has ravaged the world. Researchers at Stanford are looking to gain connection to aspects of the brain aside from movement. They recently tested the use of BCIs to restore lost speech by decoding and interpreting neural signals for different English phonemes, and found promising results .
Other projects at Stanford have tested whether other brain areas could interpret movement information from all four limbs instead of just one . The 2012 study utilized a portion of the brain called the precentral gyrus, which has small segments that interpret movement information from each limb separately. Because of this, the BCIs only decoded signals from one limb. However, another brain region, which they referred to as the “hand knob area,” appears to represent the whole body, presenting the possibility of connecting the brain to multiple prosthetic limbs at once.
As BrainGate continues to explore these avenues for future research, the second round of clinical trials, directed by Hochberg through Massachusetts General Hospital, is expected to come to completion in 2022. This will be the culmination of more than a decade of rigorous research, but it’s far from the finish line of their endeavors. BrainGate will work into the future, hoping to one day give countless people access to parts of their brain they thought they had lost forever.
 Hochberg LR, Bacher D, Jarosiewicz B, Masse NY, Simeral JD, Vogel J, et al. Reach and grasp by people with tetraplegia using a neurally controlled robotic arm. Nature. 2012;485(7398):372–5. DOI: 10.1038/nature11076.
 [Image Citation] Wikimedia Commons, Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrainGate.jpg
 BrainGate team. About BrainGate. [Internet] [Cited 2021 Feb. 12] Available from: https://www.braingate.org/about-braingate/#
 Wilson GH, Stavisky SD, Willett FR, Avansino DT, Kelemen JN, Hochberg LR, et al. Decoding spoken English from intracortical electrode arrays in dorsal precentral gyrus. Journal of Neural Engineering. 2020;17(6):066007. DOI: 10.1088/1741-2552/abbfef.
 Willett FR, Deo DR, Avansino DT, Rezaii P, Hochberg LR, Henderson JM, et al. Hand Knob Area of Premotor Cortex Represents the Whole Body in a Compositional Way. Cell. 2020;181(2):396-409.e26. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.02.043.