Paralysed patients use thoughts to control robotic arm


Video from BrainGate team shows Cathy Hutchinson using a robot arm to take a sip of coffee. Courtesy Brown University / Massachusetts General Hospital

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You know the feeling when you watch something and your jaw drops? That happened when I saw the footage of Cathy Hutchinson use a robotic arm to lift a flask of coffee to her mouth.

It was the first time since her stroke nearly 15 years previously that she had served herself a drink. She is one of two patients who took part in a trial of a neural interface system. A sensor containing a grid of 96 tiny electrodes is fixed to the brain and this picks up neural activity from the motor cortex and sends it to a computer which converts it to commands.

The footage is extraordinary because you can see the patient is controlling the robot arm by the power of thought. It would appear to open a world of possibilities - a bridge between humans and machines.

I've written a report about the research in Nature which you can read here.

'Road worth travelling'

I soon realised that I had covered this research before, in 2006. That concerned another paralysed patient, Matt Nagle. He had the same tiny sensor implanted in his brain and could use it to control a cursor on a computer screen - turning lights on and off, and switching channels on TV.

This latest research takes the project to another level.

The researchers admit this technology is very much experimental and a long way from being of practical use. But it does offer real hope to patients with locked-in syndrome, whose active brains are trapped within a paralysed body.

The system could be used to develop an effective means by which they could communicate using a computer. It could also be used to help them control a wheelchair.

As for the brain controlling prosthetic limbs for amputees or allowing paralysed patients to reconnect their brain to their limbs and enable them to function - they are both a long long way away. But that doesn't make the research any less significant. It may be a small step on a long road, but it is surely a road worth travelling.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @random_Ly. I think you'll find that I recognised a great success on the first line of my comment

    However, you seem to want to stifle debate regarding the mechanism of the solution

    It isn't 'naysaying' to question whether the title of the article is actually correct

    For example, the debate regarding the effectiveness of prayer to cure people - should we simply accept it if I say it works???

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It may be a small step on a long road, but it is surely a road worth travelling. I couldn't agree more! Right now, we have one body, When something happens, when we lose are independence, it is extremely traumatic & depressing. Some people just want to die. THE HOPE that these small steps bring must be heart-swelling to those with malfunctioning bodies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @ jtwoodstock

    No one said anything about "see[ing] into the mind." As far as being controlled by thought - what are thoughts? Electrical impulses in the brain. What is the machine interpreting and acting on? Electrical impulses in the brain.

    Keep your smartass naysaying to yourself and let the rest of us enjoy seeing a revolutionary breakthrough that could rehabilitate thousands of people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Another wonderful step towards independence for the motor-incapacitated. And it certainly is controlled by thought - pattterns of neural activity; just as normal limb movement is controlled by brain impulses associated with motor movement. The user must learn new and unnatural patterns of motor thoughts to control the device, but brain plasticity may eventually allow it to become automatic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    A great success but let's describe it correctly - we can't see in the mind yet!

    It isn't controlled by 'thought', it is controlled by recognising a brain impulse that's associated with motor movement

    The mind makes the decision to initiate the action - the action of movement itself is not the thought but the instantiation of the thought

    It's a million miles away from controlled by 'thought'


Comments 5 of 9



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