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VA Research Expands Knowledge of Brain Injuries, Robotics

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Two studies announced last week by Department of Veterans Affairs may help develop new diagnostics, therapeutics, and rehabilitation strategies for treating blast-related traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), while improving technology that restores independence and mobility for people with paralysis or limb-loss.

Research indicates the use of an investigational brain-computer interface system provided two people with paralyzed limbs the power of mind over body. Separate VA research is providing further evidence that exposure to a single bomb blast may cause a progressive degenerative disease of the brain linked to repetitive brain trauma.

"These studies are just the latest example of the world-class VA research that reaches beyond Veterans," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said. "As with so much of VA research, the impact will be felt not just through improved care for Veterans but for all Americans."

In a study published in the May 17 Nature, VA researchers described how two individuals without functional use of their limbs were able to reach and grasp objects in three-dimensional space using robotic arms controlled solely by brain activity. Specifically, BrainGate*, an investigational brain-computer interface system being studied under a Food and Drug Administration Investigational Device Exemption led to this landmark discovery.

This is the first peer-reviewed demonstration of three-dimensional control of robotic arms by a person with tetraplegia using neural activity.

In another study covered in the May 16 issue of Science Translational Medicine, VA researchers confirmed the first cases of CTE in brain tissue from blast-exposed military service personnel.

CTE affects the brain and is linked to repeated head trauma resulting in large accumulations of tau proteins. These proteins kill cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning.

Laboratory experiments showed that exposure to a single blast -- equivalent to a typical improvised explosive device -- results in CTE and the long-term brain impairments that accompany the disease.

"It is by conducting cutting-edge research studies such as these, and evaluating the meaning in the context of all rigorous scientific evidence, that VA research provides the best health care for our Veterans," said Dr. Robert Petzel, VHA Under Secretary for Health. "VA is uniquely positioned to move scientific discovery from investigators' laboratories to patient care."

VA, which has the largest integrated health care system in the country, also has one of the largest medical research programs. This year, approximately 3,400 researchers will work on more than 2,300 projects with nearly $1.9 billion in funding.

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