Using only her thoughts, a Massachusetts woman paralyzed for 15 years directed a robotic arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her lips, researchers report in the latest advance in harnessing brain waves to help people with disabilities.
In the past year, similar stories have included a quadriplegic man in Pennsylvania who made a robotic arm give a high-five and stroke his girlfriend's hand, and a partially paralyzed man who remotely controlled a small robot that scooted around in a Swiss lab.
Key year: 1966
The first research on primates into how to interface with the neurons of the motor cortex was done on monkeys. In 1966, scientists made the first recordings of the electric signals sent by those neurons, using monkeys that were awake.
It's startling stuff but has so far been limited to the lab. Experts in the technology and in rehabilitation medicine say, however, they are optimistic that once technology improves and the cost comes down, it will help paralyzed people in everyday life.
The latest report, which was published in Thursday's edition of the journal Nature, comes from scientists at Brown University, Harvard University and elsewhere.
It describes how two people who lost use of their arms and legs because of strokes years before were able to control free-standing robotic arms with the help of a tiny sensor implanted in their brains.
Participants imagined moving their limbs
The sensor, about the size of a small pill, eavesdropped on the electrical activity of a few dozen brain cells as the study participants imagined moving their arms. The chip then sent signals to a computer, which translated them into commands to the robotic arms.
The computer was taught how to interpret the brain patterns through practice as the paralyzed participants watched the robot arms move and then imagined that they were moving their own arms the same way.
In one task to test the system, the two participants tried to direct a robot arm to reach out and squeeze foam balls in front of them. The man succeeded in less than half his attempts, but the woman was able to do it about 60 per cent of the time.
The woman, Cathy Hutchinson of East Taunton, Mass., was also asked to use the arm to drink the coffee. That involved picking up the bottle, bringing it to her lips so she could sip from a straw, and putting the bottle back on the table. She succeeded in four out of six tries with the arm, which was specially programmed for this task.
"The smile on her face... was just a wonderful thing to see," said Leigh Hochberg, a physician and researcher.
Researchers said in Hutchinson's case that the results show that the implanted chip still worked after five years, and that her brain was still generating useful signals even though she hadn't moved her arms in almost 15 years.
The ultimate goal, researchers said, is an implanted device that would reactivate a person's own paralyzed limbs. Another goal is to operate high-tech prostheses for amputees.