Paralysed woman controls robot arm using tiny brain implant

A paralysed woman has used a mind-controlled robot arm to take her first independent sip of coffee in 15 years.

Researchers at Brown University in the United States have enabled two people with tetraplegia to take control of a robot-powered arm using a tiny implant on the surface of their brains,  CNET reports .

The 96-electrode 'BrainGate' implant allowed one participant -- who'd had the tiny sensor implanted five years prior -- to use the study's robot arm to take her first independent sip of coffee in 15 years.

Over four days the 58-year old woman underwent 158 trials, and was able to touch a target within an allotted time 48.8 per cent of the time using this DLR robot arm and hand, and 69.2 per cent of the time using the DEKA arm and hand

In a video detailing the remarkable research (embedded below for your viewing pleasure), neuroscientist Prof. John Donoghue explains that, "we implant a tiny sensor, just about the size of a baby aspirin, just into the surface of the brain."

Donoghue makes the science sound simple, summarising that the sensor can, "pick up the electrical impulses from a bunch of neurons. And each of those little neurons are like radio broadcast towers, putting out impulses. And when they get to the outside, a computer translator converts the pattern of pulses into something that is a command."

Incredibly, the paper -- recently published in Nature -- says that participants in the research were able to control the robotic limb, "without explicit training".

The system isn't flawless -- the paper notes that using the mind-controlled robot appendage didn't prove as speedy or precise as the arm of an able-bodied person.

It demonstrates the potential of mind-control limbs however, and proves that people with disabilities could use the brain-sensor tech to take control of artificial limbs. Or, to put it in more sciencey-sounding terms, "recreate useful multidimensional control of complex devices directly from a small sample of neural signals."

Very interesting stuff! Best of luck with the research, chaps. Have you spotted any excellent examples of scientific research? Clue me in with a post in the comments, or over on our Facebook wall.

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About the author

Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.

 

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