Tetraplegic controls robotic arm with brain implant

A new study in Nature reports that two people with tetraplegia were able to reach for and grasp objects in three-dimensional space with robotic arms that they controlled directly with brain activity.

A 58-year-old woman, “S3,” and a 66-year-old man, “T2,” participated in the study. They had each been paralyzed by a brainstem stroke years earlier which left them with no functional control of their limbs.

The BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial employs the BrainGate system in which a baby aspirin-sized device with a grid of 96 tiny electrodes is implanted in the motor cortex-a part of the brain that is involved in voluntary movement.

The study represents the first demonstration and the first peer-reviewed report of people with tetraplegia using brain signals to control a robotic arm in three-dimensional space to complete a task usually performed by their arm.  Specifically, S3 and T2 controlled the arms to reach for and grasp foam targets that were placed in front of them using flexible supports.  In addition, S3 used the robot arm to pick up a bottle of coffee, bring it to her mouth, issue a command to tip it, drink through a straw, and return the bottle to the table.

“Our goal in this research is to develop technology that will restore independence and mobility for people with paralysis or limb loss,” said 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.  “We have much more work to do, but the encouraging progress of this research is demonstrated not only in the reach-and-grasp data, but even more so in S3’s smile when she served herself coffee of her own volition for the first time in almost 15 years.”

The BrainGate success has been covered both here and overseas:

Stuff.co.nz: Quadriplegic uses mind to control robotic arm

New Zealand Herald: Woman uses thoughts to control robotic arm

Guardian: Mind-controlled robotic arm

BBC News: Paralysed patients use thoughts to control robotic arm

USA Today: Paralysis victims use brain signals to control robotic arm

Reuters: Paralyzed woman uses thoughts to move robotic arm