Brain implant allows paralysed woman to control a robot with her thoughts

A woman who lost the use of her limbs after a devastating stroke nearly 15 years ago has taken a sip of coffee by guiding a robotic arm with her thoughts.

The 58-year-old used a brain implant to control the robot and bring a flask of the coffee to her lips, the first time she had picked up anything since she was paralysed and left unable to speak by a catastrophic brain stem stroke.

Doctors hailed the feat as the first demonstration of an implant that directly controls a reaching and gripping robotic arm by sensing and decoding the patient’s brain signals.

The work is part of a US clinical trial of an experimental implant called BrainGate that doctors see as a first step towards devices that can bypass damage to the nervous system and allow paralysed people to regain control of their limbs or amputees to move prosthetics.

“At the very beginning I had to concentrate and focus on the muscles I would use to perform certain functions,” the woman said. “BrainGate felt natural and comfortable, so I quickly got accustomed to the trial.”

Writing in the journal Nature, researchers described trials in which the woman, known only as S3, and a 66-year-old man referred to as T2, used the implant to control two different designs of robotic arm. The pill-sized device is surgically implanted a few millimetres into the motor cortex on the surface of the brain, where its 96 hair-thin electrodes pick up the patient’s neural activity.

In a series of sessions, the patients learned to control the robot arm and pick up foam balls by imagining moving their own arm and hand. Neither patient could control the robotic arm as well as natural arm movements, but doctors were still delighted with their progress.

“These results are the first peer-reviewed demonstration of a three-dimensional reaching and grasping task using direct brain control of a robotic device,” said Leigh Hochberg, a neuroengineer at Brown University in Rhode Island.

“One of the participants was also able to use the investigational BrainGate system to pick up a bottle of coffee and drink from it. This was the first time in nearly 15 years that she had been able to pick up anything solely of her own volition. The smile on her face when she did this is something that I and our whole research team will never forget,” he added. See more at: theguardian