A Massachusetts native, Nagle played football at Weymouth High School and set a record his senior year for making 33 unassisted tackles. The diehard New England Patriots and Red Sox fan had just passed the postal service exam when his life was forever altered by a stranger.
On July 3, 2001, a brawl broke out after the Fourth of July fireworks display at Wessagusset Beach in Weymouth, Mass. Nagle jumped into the fray to help one of his friends and sustained a stab wound to the neck. The 8-inch blade severed his spinal cord. The attack left him paralyzed from the shoulders down and unable to breathe without a ventilator. When scar tissue grew over his vocal cords, Nagle lost most of his ability to talk as well. The final years of his life were spent at his parents’ house and at the New England Sinai Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Stoughton, Mass.
Determined to walk again, Nagle volunteered to become the first person to have a sensory chip tapped directly into his brain. The Braingate Neural Interface System was conceived by John Donoghue, the head of Brown University’s neuroscience department and a cofounder of Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems, a Massachusetts company that develops neural stimulation, sensing and processing technology. Although other researchers are working on similar brain-computer interfaces, Cyberkinetics was the first to receive FDA approval for human testing.
In 2004, researchers implanted a 4-millimeter square silicon chip studded with 100 hair-thin microelectrodes into Nagle’s primary motor cortex, the area of the brain that controls movement. Soon after the surgery, he was able to move a cursor on a computer and control a television with his thoughts. Nagle could also draw on a computer, check e-mail, play simple online video games and command a prosthetic hand to open and close. Researchers at Cyberkinetics hope the results of the Braingate experiment will someday help people with spinal cord injuries, Lou Gehrig’s disease or other conditions that impair movement and communication.
Due to FDA regulations, and the set parameters of the study, the Braingate sensory chip was removed from Nagle’s brain a year after it was embedded. Electrodes were later implanted to stimulate Nagle’s diaphragm, which allowed him to breathe without a ventilator. This also enabled him to pilot a motorized wheelchair by blowing into a sip-and-puff tube.
Nagle slipped into a coma on July 17 and was diagnosed with sepsis, an infection of the blood. After doctors declared him brain dead, Nagle’s parents, Ellen and Pat Nagle, donated his liver, kidneys and his skin to patients on the organ donor registry.
The Matthew Nagle Spinal Injury Foundation was established soon after the attack. In the past six years, benefit dinners, golf tournaments and charity bike races have helped the non-profit organization raise thousands for people with spinal cord injuries. Dr. Jon Mukand, one of the principal investigators of the BrainGate trial, plans to write a book about Nagle tentatively titled, “At Knifepoint: Brain Implant, Stem Cells, and Matthew Nagle’s Quest for Recovery.”
Nicholas Cirignano, the man who stabbed Nagle, was convicted in 2005 of armed assault with intent to kill and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. He is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence; however, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office plans to treat Nagle’s death as a homicide.