Borough man part of groundbreaking research

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Bob Veillette at his Naugatuck home last July. A stroke in 2006 left Veillette paralyzed. Veillette is one of only two people in the world able to move a robotic arm by imagining it, reports a new study in the scientific journal Nature. -RA ARCHIVE

A Naugatuck man, paralyzed and mute the last six years from a brain-stem stroke, has been able to move a prosthetic arm, control a cursor and type words, just by thinking.

Equipped with a tiny sensor implanted in his brain last June, Bob Veillette, former managing editor at the Republican-American, is one of only two people in the world who have been able to move a robotic arm by imagining it, reports a new study today in the scientific journal Nature.

The groundbreaking technology and research offer hope to those who have lost limbs or are afflicted with debilitating brain and stroke diseases that they may eventually regain some control over their environment.

“I just imagined moving my own arm and the (robotic) arm moved where I wanted it to go,” Veillette, known as “T2” in the Nature paper, told researchers. He communicates by blinking, responding to letters of the alphabet as they are recited to him.

A second woman in the study, who has been paralyzed and mute for 15 years, was able to lift a bottle of coffee to her lips and drink from it.

“There was a moment of true joy, true happiness,” said Dr. John Donaghue, the Brown University neuroscientist who pioneered the technology more than 10 years ago, in a video release. “I mean, it was beyond the fact that it was an accomplishment, an important advancement in the field. … It was a moment where we helped somebody do something that they had wished to do for many years.”

The pilot project, called BrainGate2, involves surgically implanting a baby aspirin-sized sensor that records the activity of dozens of cells in the area of the brain responsible for voluntary movement. The system then decodes these signals in real time to control a computer or prosthetic arm.

In the future, researchers hope the BrainGate2 technology could power a wheelchair or prosthetic limb. The ultimate goal is to marry the system with muscle-stimulating technology that would allow the paralyzed to move their limbs again.

Veillette, 66, is only the seventh person in the world to try the device, part of a ground-breaking field called Brain Computer Interface, a technology almost unthinkable only 10 years ago. The technology melds the human brain with computer devices, capturing the brain’s command to move and transferring them to a computer screen or robotic arm. Previous participants worked with a more rudimentary device.

The experiment does not change the patient’s condition. Veillette will still not be able to move or speak. But the research in which he is involved may help those, like Veillette, suffering from “locked-in syndrome,” in which a victim’s cognition and personality are intact, but they are unable to move or speak.

“Our goal in this research is to develop technology that will restore independence and mobility for people with paralysis or limb loss,” said Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neuroengineer and sponsor-investigator for the clinical trial.

The study is significant for several reasons. Researchers have long wondered whether the brain’s neurons still fire after severe damage to the organ. This research builds on previous studies that indicate they do. More importantly, it signifies that researchers can make sense of these neural patterns and reproduce them in a prosthetic, such as a robotic hand or computer.

Veillette, for instance, has spelled out words by imagining moving a cursor over letters that appeared before him on a computer screen.

Veillette has spent nearly a year with the silicon sensor, equipped with 100 electrodes, in his motor cortex. He is only able to use the device for research purposes, not to communicate with his family. Veillette said he enrolled in the trial “to help others.” The Veillettes heard about a 2006 trial in which researchers showed that a sensor allowed a quadriplegic to operate a computer cursor and open a prosthetic hand using only his thoughts. At the time, Veillette dismissed the possibility.

“When this first happened he said, he didn’t want any artificial things put in his head,” said his wife, Bonnie Veillette.

Veillette changed his mind after his son Gregory, then a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, learned about the trial.

“I owed it to my family,” Veillette told his wife. “You deserved it. And to help other people. No regrets. Everyone told me I might never walk again and they were doing so much for me I didn’t realize how bad I was.”

In the current trial, the two participants experimented with two different prosthetic devices. Using one of the arms, Veillette was able to touch a target within an allotted time on 96 percent of his 45 tries. He expects to continue with the trial for at least another year.

Funding for the $40 million research project was provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.

Editor’s note: Look for a five-part special series in the Republican-American starting Sunday that chronicles the success of the research and the struggles of the Veillette family.