His sport was the reason he enrolled, but two decades later former fencing captain Leigh Hochberg is on the verge of a major medical breakthrough that will serve as his legacy at Brown University.
"If Brown didn't have a fencing team, I probably would've wound up matriculating somewhere else."
And Leigh Hochberg's decades-long association with Brown University has brought him to the cusp of a major medical milestone -- enabling people who are paralyzed to control devices with their minds.
He's the principal investigator for a study using the BrainGate Neural Interface System on live subjects -- in this case, with patients who have lost use of their limbs -- taking place at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital. The BrainGate system is a 4mm square (baby aspirin-sized) semiconductor implanted into a patient's motor cortex, the part of the brain that normally controls movement. It then sends motor cortex signals to an outside processor, which translates the signals into computer directives. "The first person [with the implant] controlled a TV, opened simulated email, and transported a piece of candy to someone's hand with a robotic arm," says Hochberg.
For Hochberg, the journey to this achievement started while he was a Brown undergraduate. "My first undergraduate neural science course was with John Donoghue," remembers Hochberg. The association continues to this day, for Dr. Donoghue is the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, the maker of the BrainGate implant. Hochberg soon found a career path. "The neuroscience laboratory course in my junior year was when I realized that science could be part of a future career," he says.
To say that Hochberg was busy as an undergraduate is an understatement. "I was lucky to have a number of research opportunities," he recalls, "it's a special part of the undergraduate experience [at Brown,] the opportunity to do research with senior faculty." Fencing and music absorbed any remaining free time. "It was balancing, every day, an exercise in multi-tasking" says Hochberg, "There was fencing, then the Band, Symphony Orchestra, Wind Symphony, Jazz Band, and a few other sporadic music groups. I did get used to finishing either a fencing practice or meet and then running to a rehearsal or concert."
"My two-year experience as fencing team captain was priceless," continues Hochberg. "Administering the activities of the team, negotiating for space and practice facilities, asking for more money for fencing, serving on the Athletic Director search committee, raising funds from the alums, all while trying to 'lead' a talented and demanding team of scholar-athletes through a grueling practice and meet schedule -- these were experiences that I still draw upon in countless ways."
In the midst of this flurry of activity Hochberg wrote "a thesis in neural science, and then looked at M.D./Ph.D. programs with great neuroscience training. Don Humphrey [a professor of physiology at Emory University School of Medicine] invited me to join him," so he was off to Emory's M.D./Ph.D. program.
"[Humphrey] was recording from the motor cortex of monkeys," he explains, "to see if we could decode those motor cortex signals to move a robot wrist." By 1996 "we could convert cortical signals to drive a robot wrist." Meanwhile Humphrey and Hochberg were documenting these advances in papers with such titles as "Real-time, off-line control of a robot wrist from macaque MI recordings."
Earning his Ph.D and M.D. degrees in 1999 (Dr. Donoghue was the outside member of his research committee), Hochberg moved on to a neurology residency at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's Hospitals. In 2004 he was named an Instructor in Neurology at Harvard Medical School and an Investigator in Neuroscience at Brown, positions he continues in today, in addition to being an Associate Investigator with the Rehabilitation Research and Development Service of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He's back at Brown, working with John Donoghue and other Brown researchers improving the devices that enable this advance. "We're in the early stage of development," he says,"We need to automate, miniaturize, make it more reliable."
"When I walk up College Hill in the morning -- the same hill I ran up and down in fencing practice -- there's still an unmistakable feeling that Brown is a unique and special place."
— Stephen Eschenbach