The Providence VA Medical Center held a dedication ceremony and open house on Nov. 12 for the new home of its Center for Restorative and Regenerative Medicine. The research center, founded in 2004, is a collaboration among VA, Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The new facility has 23,850 square feet of basic science and clinical research space dedicated to rehabilitation studies. VA provided more than $6 million to pay for the new construction, on top of $7 million it initially provided to fund the center. Research at the center focuses on areas such as neurotechnology, prosthetics, skeletal biology, regenerative medicine and advanced rehabilitation techniques.
One of the high-profile projects now under way there is a study involving the DEKA arm, a new state-of-the art upper-limb prosthesis; and BrainGate, a technology aimed at enabling people to control electronic or robotic devices directly with their thoughts. Researchers will attempt to marry the two technologies, such that DEKA users will be able to control the high-tech arm just by thinking about it. Prosthetics experts envision this as a highly intuitive, efficient control system.
The DEKA arm, developed through funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is now being tested with Veterans at several VA sites in an "optimization" study. Various methods other than neural control are currently used to operate the arm, such as shoe-embedded sensors that the user presses on with his foot.
BrainGate, aside from its potential use with the DEKA arm, has been undergoing testing with patients who are paralyzed due to ALS, spinal cord injury or stroke. In studies so far, patients have been able to move a computer cursor or maneuver a robotic arm to pick up a glass. The system currently calls for an implanted brain electrode to be wired to an external decoder, but the researchers hope to eventually go wireless and miniaturize the components so everything can be internal.
Guest speakers for the Nov. 12 dedication at the Providence VAMC included Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse; Rep. James Langevin; Edward Wing, MD, dean of medicine and biological sciences for Brown; research center director Roy Aaron, MD; and Robert Jaeger, PhD, a scientific program manager with VA's Office of Rehabilitative Research and Development.