New Faculty 2008-09
Leigh Hochberg Associate Professor of Engineering

Leigh Hochberg
Associate Professor of Engineering

By Elaine Beebe  |  September 3, 2008  |  Email to a friend

Paralysis is often permanent. Leigh Hochberg is among the researchers who hope to restore movement to people with paralysis.

“For nearly 40 years, NIH has had a neuroprosthesis program, one goal of which has been to create the knowledge and technologies that would allow for natural restoration using the original signals from the brain,” he said.

Many parts of the brain control movement, Hochberg says. For example, the primary motor cortex sends signals that lead to movement of the arm and hand.

“If somebody had a spinal cord injury, a stroke, ALS [Lou Gehrig’s Disease] or had a limb amputated due to trauma or vascular disease ... there is still a desire to move the limb,” Hochberg said.

The goal is to tap that movement signal in the primary motor cortex and channel it to a cursor on a computer, a prosthetic limb or even the patient’s own limb. “I saw the potential [in neuroprosthetic research] as a graduate student,” said Hochberg, who completed his M.D. and Ph.D. at Emory.

After his residency and fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Hochberg formed the HMS Neurotechnology Workgroup and helped to design the pilot trials of a brain-computer interface for paralyzed patients. In preliminary trials, the BrainGate system has allowed those patients to move a computer cursor using only neural activity.

“Control over a cursor, for people who can’t move and can’t speak, could provide a marked increase in communication and control over their environment,” he said.

The first article from this research appeared on the cover of the journal Nature in 2006. In it Hochberg and colleagues reported that a participant with cervical spinal cord injury was able to play video games, open and close a prosthetic hand and begin to control a multi-joint robotic arm.

Hochberg will continue seeing patients in Boston while teaching at Brown. “It’s two different institutions, but the same intellectual endeavor,” he said.

He and neuroscience professor John Donoghue will continue to collaborate closely in the development of neural interface systems for people with paralysis or limb loss. “My position is in engineering as it reflects Brown’s continuing and expanding commitment to neuroengineering,” Hochberg said, “and the design of systems which integrate research in engineering, neuroscience, and computer science toward better understanding the human brain and toward developing technologies to help people with neurologic injury or disease.”

Donoghue was an external member of Hochberg”s thesis committee. The two met when Hochberg was a Brown undergraduate in Donoghue’s wet-lab neuroscience course, Hochberg recalled. He graduated from Brown with honors in neuroscience. (He was also a fencer, a percussionist and a pianist in a jazz combo.)

“I loved my four years as an undergraduate at Brown and always hoped to return to Brown on the faculty,” he said. “Brown is one of the few places with such expertise in neuroscience, computer science, engineering, and neurotechnology.”