Paving the way


Naugatuck man leaves ground-breaking brain implant study

Naugatuck resident Bob Veillette, who suffered a stroke in 2006 that left him with locked-in syndrome, was among the first people in the country to take part in a study to determine if a brain implant could allow paralytics to move limbs just by thinking. –RA ARCHIVE
Naugatuck resident Bob Veillette, who suffered a stroke in 2006 that left him with locked-in syndrome, was among the first people in the country to take part in a study to determine if a brain implant could allow paralytics to move limbs just by thinking. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — Bob Veillette, a Naugatuck man who suffers from locked-in syndrome, has ended his participation in a study to determine if a brain implant could allow him and other paralytics to move limbs just by thinking.

Veillette had the neural implant installed by surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital in June 2011. It was surgically removed on Jan. 7. His wife, Bonnie, said researchers told her that they were no longer receiving consistent messages from the implant.

Investigators are now trying to determine what led to the degradation of signals they were receiving from the device, which was implanted in Veillette’s motor cortex. Veillette was only the seventh person in the world to have the device implanted. Two new subjects have subsequently been added to the trial. In total, four implants have been removed from study participants.

Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neuroengineer and sponsor-investigator for Braingate, the clinical trial in which Veillette was participating, confirmed that Veillette’s participation had ended, but stressed that researchers had learned much from Veillette’s participation.

“He contributed an enormous amount from this research,” said Hochberg, from Massachusetts General Hospital. “His contribution has helped us to get closer to a device that we all hope is going to help people with paralysis. He gave us some incredibly important new insights into the research. He also was one of the first people in the world to control a robotic arm just by thinking about the movement of his own hand.”

Veillette, now 69, suffered a devastating brain-stem stroke in 2006 that severed the connection between his brain and spinal cord. Researchers at Braingate hoped that a neural implant could “read” Veillette’s neural signals and then translate them to an external device, such as a computer cursor or even a robotic hand. For awhile, at least, they were right. Veillette and another paralytic were able to use their thoughts to direct a robotic arm to grasp objects. Details of the groundbreaking procedure were published in the journal Nature in 2012.

Hochberg stressed that researchers plan for trial participants to be involved in the trial for one year, unless they choose to continue. Veillette had planned to continue for at least another year. His wife said he was disappointed his role had ended.

“I felt bad for Bob because I know he enjoyed this,” said Bonnie. “He enjoyed the company, the interaction and I miss it too, sometimes. He felt he had a job to do.”

Veillette, formerly the managing editor of the Republican-American, whose communication abilities have eroded in the past year, was able to tell a reporter, “Don’t stop helping others,” through a method he uses of raising his eyes when letters of the alphabet are spoken. Before the initial 2011 surgery, Veillette had blinked out, “I am not doing this for myself, but for others.”

The reasons for the erosion in Veillette’s condition and the diminishing recording ability of the implant are unclear. On Dec. 27, 2012, Veillette suffered a series of brain seizures over a 12-hour period that considerably weakened his limited power to communicate. He was taken to Saint Mary’s Hospital and transferred immediately to Mass General because of his involvement in the Braingate research.

Researchers there have insisted that it was not the baby aspirin-size neural implant that caused the brain seizures, which left Veillette hospitalized for four months.

During the first three weeks after the seizures, physicians kept Veillette in a medically induced coma to try to stop the seizures. For several weeks Veillette, who is also mute from the stroke, could not identify family members and was unable to attend to the painstaking spelling out of words the family had used to communicate with him.

“They kept saying, ‘It’s not the pedestal (implant)’, because they could trace where the seizures were coming from,” Bonnie said.

Hochberg, who could not address Veillette’s medical condition because of privacy issues, said he doubted the implant played a role in Veillette’s seizures.

“We can’t know that for sure,” he said. “But we looked hard and we don’t think there’s a relationship between the device and the seizures.”

In his capacity as a neuroscientist, Hochberg said, “People occasionally have first-time-ever seizures that are severe and require intensive care in order to control them. It’s common that the reasons for those seizures are never found.”

Overall, Hochberg said that the device, manufactured by a Salt Lake City company “worked extremely well, in his case, for six to eight months and then, slowly, the quality of the signals that were being recorded declined.”

Braingate researchers have said they would prefer the device work “as long as possible,” but realistically hope it lasts 10 years. One research participant had the Braingate implant for five years and it was still providing useful signals. Hochberg said it was the device itself — not deciphering the neural signals, at which researchers are improving — that was the issue.

“We’re learning about the engineering of the device,” he said. “This is a challenge for the field, not just for us. How do we develop devices that will record high-resolution signals from the nervous system for a decade?”

Braingate is continuing to try to refine the device with two new participants.

“Because of what Bob taught us the two participants today have that much better use of the Braingate system,” Hochberg said.