USING ONLY HER thoughts, a Massachusetts woman paralysed for 15 years has directed a robotic arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her lips.
The development is the latest advance in harnessing brain waves to help disabled people, and it’s hoped could lead to improvements in everyday life for those with serious mobility problems.
Cathy Hutchinson from East Taunton, Massachusetts, who was paralysed in a stroke, had a tiny sensor implanted in her brain.
The sensor, about the size of a baby aspirin, eavesdropped on the electrical activity of a few dozen brain cells as she imagined moving her arm. The chip then sent signals to a computer, which translated them into commands to the robotic arm.
The computer was taught how to interpret the brain patterns through practice.
Eventually, Hutchinson was asked to use the arm to drink the coffee. That involved picking up the bottle, bringing it to her lips so she could sip from a straw, and putting the bottle back on the table. She succeeded in four out of six tries with the arm, which was specially programmed for this task.
You can watch the incredible technology at work here:
“The smile on her face … was just a wonderful thing to see,” said Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a researcher with the Providence VA, Brown and Massachusetts General Hospital.
The research, which also involved another participant, was carried out by scientists at Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center in Rhode Island, Harvard Medical School and elsewhere, and published today in the journal Nature.
At present the technology is far too expensive to help many people. But Dr Preeti Raghavan, an expert in physical rehabilitation at the New York University Langone Medical Center, noted that the cost would be weighed against the significant expense of caregiving for paralysed people who can’t do much on their own.
She said she expected that within a decade, many people may be using the technology to control their own limbs or robotic arms.
- Additional reporting Michael Freeman