16 May 2012

In 2011, Cathy Hutchinson, a paralyzed woman, lifted a cup for the first time in 15 years using a robotic arm that was controlled by her thoughts.  This was thanks to a project called BrainGate2, which is getting us closer to where prosthetic or robotic arms can allow people to re-gain their limbs.

Hutchinson suffered a stroke that damaged her brain which cut off her motor functions from the rest of her body.  She was unable to speak or move.  She is classified as a tetraplegic - those who have lost the use of their arms and legs.

BrainGate and Other Existing Techniques

BrainGate is the first clinical trial of a brain-controlled robotic limb for humans.  John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University and the Department of Veterans Affairs is a lead investigator in the trial.  The results will be published in this weeks issue of the journal Nature.

Other modern prosthetics might use minute motions from the stump of an arm or reroute nerve endings.  Noninvasive reading of brain impulses is also being studied as well as exoskeletons for those who cannot walk.

Refinements Still Needed

With BrainGate, the system is connected directly to the human motor cortex, the stretch of cerebral material that runs in a strip from the top of the head toward the cheekbone.  Using a tiny array of 96 electrodes, the array is attached to the area of the cortex that controls the arm.  The electrodes then send signals through a cable to a computer and the computer translates that signal into specific movements done by the robotic arm.

Unfortunately as of now, the system isn't practical for everyday use.  A cable is attached to the patients head and computer is the size of a dorm room refrigerator.  Donoghue says the goal is to shrink the computer small enough to be implantable or wearable.

Wireless Ability and Natural Motion

One other goal would be to make the electrodes function via a wireless connection and creating a power source that will last years, like a pacemaker works.  This robotic arm would also be able to be attached like a prosthetic.

They still have to work out some kinks like controls for the interface.  For instance, when Hutchinson directed the arm to lift the cup of coffee, she didn't have to direct every movement, only the lateral and grasping motion.

A lead author on the paper, Leigh Hochberg notes that in natural movement much of it is done without any thought.  Scientists want to accomplish something similar.

As Easy as Thinking

Hutchinson reported that moving the arm wasn't difficult and didn't require much more concentration than using one's natural arms, however using the machine did require training.

BrainGate Past Success and Working Towards Public Availability

BrainGate's first success with humans came in 2006 when a patient named Matt Nagle, who was paralyzed after being stabbed, could control a computer mouse cursor using the first BrainGate system.

Donoghue and Hochberg indicated that it would be years before the device would be available to patients at an affordable rate.  It also must pass the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.

Source:  Nature

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