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Paralyzed woman moves robotic arm using thought alone

Using the BrainGate neural interface system, a woman paralyzed by a brainstem stroke serves herself coffee for the first time in 15 years.

The BrainGate2 Neural Interface System detects brain signals that can be translated by a computer into machine instructions, enabling thought control of robotic devices.
BrainGate Collaboration

By implanting a 96-electrode sensor the size of a baby aspirin onto the surface of their brains, researchers have enabled two quadriplegic participants to use their thoughts alone to perform tasks with two types of robotic arms.

The BrainGate implant -- and the resulting Jedi mind tricks -- may be sort of anxiety-producing to some. But the smile on the face of the woman who hadn't been able to serve herself coffee in 15 years put a fine point on the progress the technology is affording.

"One of our participants was able to do something that, when all of us saw it for the first time, gave us all pause," lead author Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neuroengineer and critical care neurologist who holds appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard, said in a Brown news video.

"She reached out with the robotic arm, she thought about the use of her own hand, she picked up that thermos of coffee, brought it close to her, tilted it toward herself, and sipped coffee from a straw. And that was the first time in nearly 15 years that she had picked up anything and been able to drink from it solely of her own volition."

John Donoghue, the neuroscientist who pioneered the BrainGate implant a decade ago and co-authored the study that appears this week in Nature, has seen the tech advance from participants being able to perform simple cursor commands on a computer monitor to actual 3D movement and dexterity commands in space.

"There was a moment of true joy, true happiness," Donoghue said in the video. "It was beyond the fact that it was an accomplishment -- I think an important advance in the entire field of brain computer interfaces. It was really a moment where we helped somebody do something that they had wished to do for many years."

As they reported in their study, the 58-year-old paralyzed woman known as S3 underwent 158 trials over the course of four days, and was able to touch the target within an allotted time 48.8 percent of the time using the DLR robotic arm and hand and 69.2 percent of the time using the DEKA arm and hand, whose grasp is wider. The other participant, a 66-year-old paralyzed man known as T2, had nearly identical results.

Donoghue was particularly encouraged to see that these results held even though one of the participants had the BrainGate array implanted five years ago. "This work is a critical step toward realizing the long-term goal of creating a neurotechnology that will restore movement, control, and independence to people with paralysis or limb loss," he said.

Check out the coffee sipping breakthrough below: