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Presented by Israeli President Shimon Peres, the one million dollar B.R.A.I.N. Prize was awarded to The BrainGate team led by Dr. John Donoghue (Brown University) and Dr. Arto Nurmikko, in recognition of their outstanding work in brain-computer interfaces. The winner was announced at the 1st International BrainTech Israel 2013 Conference in Tel Aviv today.

As we reported earlier the B.R.A.I.N (Breakthrough Research And Innovation in Neurotechnology) Prize is an international award granted for a recent breakthrough in the field of brain technology for the betterment of humanity. The award was granted by Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), a non-profit organization inspired by President Peres’ vision of turning Israel into a global hub of brain technology innovation.

BrainGate was selected by an international judging committee of distinguished neuroscience and technology leaders headed by Dr. Gerald Fishbach, which included Nobel Laureates Profs. Eric Kandel, and Bert Sakmann.

“We are deeply honored to receive this award,” said Donoghue, co-director of the BrainGate team, a researcher at the Providence V.A. Medical Center and the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor at Brown, where he directs the Brown Institute for Brain Science. “It will support our continued research to help people with paralysis, some of whom cannot speak, to restore their connection to the world around them.”

After accepting a statuette of a brain presented to him by President Peres, Dr. Donoghue described BrainGate’s breakthrough. “The biggest thing that we at BrainGate have accomplished is that we can now ‘read out’ the brain,” said Donoghue. “That means that among other things we can reconnect the brain to the outside world for severely paralyzed people who have no way of getting thoughts out to the world.”
During the award ceremony, President Peres told the audience that brain technology will revolutionize our lives. “The brain is illustrious… The greatest hope is that we should begin to understand how our own brain functions. The first questions we ask ourselves is how to make Israel a center of brain research. Where is Israel strong? There are five domains in brain research. We found out that Israel is strong in two of them: one, the interface of brain to computer and the other is the therapy of the brain.”

The prize is awarded “for a recent breakthrough in the field of brain technology for the betterment of humanity,” according to a statement by Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), a nonprofit organization inspired by Peres that grants the award. The contest’s panel of judges—experts in neuroscience and technology, including two Nobel laureates—considered presentations from 10 finalists before selecting BrainGate.

What is BrainGate?

The investigational BrainGate system, initially developed at Brown and now being studied in clinical trials with partners including Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford University and Case Western Reserve University, employs a baby aspirin-size device with a grid of 96 tiny electrodes that is implanted in the motor cortex—a part of the brain that is involved in voluntary movement of the hand and arm.

The electrodes are close enough to individual neurons to record the neural activity associated with intended movement. An external computer translates the pattern of impulses across a population of neurons into commands to operate assistive devices, including robotic arms.

As the team demonstrated in a paper in the journal Nature in May 2012, subjects can move robotic arms to perform reaching and grasping tasks—one subject used the system to drink coffee from a bottle – by thinking about moving their own arm and hand.

More recently the team has advanced the work by developing and testing a novel broadband wireless, rechargeable, fully implantable version of the brain sensor. The prototype system, which has been tested in animal models, is designed to allow greater freedom for users of the BrainGate system, who currently must be connected to the system’s computers via a cable. Nurmikko, a neuroengineer, has led the effort to develop the wireless implant.

“The prize recognizes the collection of an extraordinary group of Brown University scientists across multiple disciplines which I have been privileged to be associated with,” Nurmikko said. “We work as a team unlike any other place I know.”

The co-leader of the BrainGate team, Dr. Leigh Hochberg, was not able to join Donohgue and Nurmikko in Israel, as he was in New Orleans to deliver a Presidential Symposium Lecture at the American Neurological Association. He said he shared the team’s excitement in winning the prize.

“All of us on the BrainGate research team are deeply honored to receive this award,” said Hochberg, associate professor of engineering at Brown, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a researcher at the Providence V.A. Medical Center’s Center of Excellence for Neurorestoration and Neurotechnology. “Our team of clinicians, scientists, engineers, and the extraordinary participants in our ongoing pilot clinical trial, continue to work every day toward developing a technology that will restore communication, mobility, and independence for people with neurologic disease or injury.”

More about the $1 million B.R.A.I.N. Prize

The Global B.R.A.I.N Prize was announced in 2011 to be granted to an individual, group or organization for a recent breakthrough in the field of brain technology. Funded by private donors in Israel and abroad, the award is open to researchers from around the world.

Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), the non-profit organization that hands it out, hopes the award will showcase Israel as an international hub for brain research, and help position Israel not only as the “startup nation,” but also the “brain nation.”

“The Global B.R.A.I.N. Prize is our way of recognizing breakthrough achievements and helping brain-tech innovators bring their solutions to society faster,” said Miri Polachek, Executive Director of IBT.

The 1st International BrainTech Israel 2013 Conference, which gave home to the B.R.A.I.N. prize, brought together key government leaders, Nobel Prize laureates, entrepreneurs, scientists, top multinational executives and key investors to explore the latest developments in brain technology and possibilities for collaboration and investment.

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