In this image from video provided by braingate2.org

Gateway to overcoming paralysis

Using only her thoughts, a Massachusetts woman paralyzed for 15 years directed a robotic arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her lips, researchers report in the latest advance in harnessing brain waves to help disabled people.

NEW YORK — Using only her thoughts, a Massachusetts woman paralyzed for 15 years directed a robotic arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her lips, researchers report in the latest advance in harnessing brain waves to help disabled people.

In the past year, similar stories have included a quadriplegic man in Pennsylvania who made a robotic arm give a high-five and stroke his girlfriend’s hand, and a partially paralyzed man who remotely controlled a small robot that scooted around in a Swiss lab.

It’s startling stuff. But will the experimental brain-controlled technology ever help paralyzed people in everyday life?

Experts in the technology and in rehabilitation medicine say they are optimistic that it will, once technology improves and the cost comes down.

The latest report, which was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature, comes from scientists at Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center in Rhode Island, Harvard Medical School and elsewhere.

It describes how two people who lost use of their arms and legs because of strokes years before were able to control free-standing robotic arms with the help of a tiny sensor implanted in their brains.

The sensor, about the size of a baby aspirin, eavesdropped on the electrical activity of a few dozen brain cells as the study participants imagined moving their arms. The chip then sent signals to a computer, which translated them into commands to the robotic arms.

The computer was taught how to interpret the brain patterns through practise as the paralyzed participants watched the robot arms move and then imagined that they were moving their own arms the same way.

In one task to test the system, the two participants tried to direct a robot arm to reach out and squeeze foam balls in front of them. The man succeeded in less than half his attempts, but the woman was able to do it about 60 per cent of the time.

The woman, Cathy Hutchinson of East Taunton, Mass., was also 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.

“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.

Researchers said in Hutchinson’s case that the results show that the implanted chip still worked after five years, and that her brain was still generating useful signals even though she hadn’t moved her arms in almost 15 years.

The ultimate goal, researchers said, is an implanted device that would reactivate a person’s own paralyzed limbs. Another goal is to operate high-tech prostheses for amputees.

Andrew Schwartz, who is doing similar research at the University of Pittsburgh, said the coffee-sipping was encouraging because it represents an everyday task a paralyzed person might want to do. “I think it’s showing this technology has therapeutic potential,” he said.

“The field is rapidly advancing, and I think this offers hope for people who are paralyzed,” Schwartz said. “The types of movements we’ll be able to do are getting more and more sophisticated at a rapid pace.”

But he and others said the technology faces a number of hurdles to widespread use, like reducing its high cost, making it more reliable, and refining the technology. For example, the brain implant now sends signals out with a wire through the skull, and researchers want to develop a completely implanted version that communicates wirelessly.

Another step toward wide use will be enticing companies to invest the money to make commercial products. Just when that might happen is an open question, Schwartz said, but it could be in the next couple of years, with prostheses or free-standing robotic arms on the market a few years after that.

Dr. Bruce Gans, executive vice-president and chief medical officer of the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., said the technology is too expensive now for widespread use. But if brain control finds uses outside the relatively limited market of paralyzed people, that might drive improvements in technology and dramatically reduce the cost, he said.

Gans suggested other uses might involve industrial applications; neuroscientist Andrew Jackson of Newcastle University in England suggested it might be in rehabilitation for victims of less severe strokes.

At some point, Gans said, “It may even turn into something that allows a person with paralysis to go back to work, so it becomes a tool a vocational rehabilitation program could eventually endorse and support.”

Dr. Preeti Raghavan, an expert in physical rehabilitation of the arms and hands at the New York University Langone Medical Center, noted that the cost of the technology would be weighed against the significant expense of caregiving for paralyzed 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. Gans said that wider use of robotic arms might be feasible within five years, but that reactivating paralyzed limbs could be decades away.

Online:

Journal Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

Research program: http://www.braingate2.org

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A young new Canadian holds a flag as she takes part in a citizenship ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Open arms in an era of closed borders: pandemic-era immigration plan to be released

Backlogs are amassing that could take years to clear up

A sign at a Starbucks Coffee store in south Seattle is shown, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Starbucks saw faster-than-expected recovery in the U.S. and China in its fiscal fourth quarter, giving it confidence as it heads into the holiday season. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to a press conference during the COVID pandemic in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. More federal financial support is on its way to help Indigenous people and communities cope with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Feds to unveil more pandemic support for Indigenous communities

Another $650 million to help Indigenous communities

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

Workers at Olymel's Red Deer pork processing plant are among those eligible for a $2-an-hour bonus because of the pandemic.
Red Deer Advocate file photo
Two Olymel workers test positive for COVID-19 in Red Deer

Two workers at Olymel’s pork processing facility in Red Deer have tested… Continue reading

Ryan, Falcons avenge earlier loss to Panthers, 25-17

Ryan, Falcons avenge earlier loss to Panthers, 25-17

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2015, file photo, former world boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. shows off his Russian passport during a news conference in Moscow, Russia. Mike Tyson and Jones got permission from California's athletic commission to return to the boxing ring next month because their fight would be strictly an exhibition of their once-unparalleled skills. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
Mike Tyson, Roy Jones promise a fight in “exhibition” return

Mike Tyson, Roy Jones promise a fight in “exhibition” return

David Hearn watches his putt on the seventh hole during the first round of the Wyndham Championship golf tournament at Sedgefield Country Club on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Greensboro, N.C. David Hearn, like everyone, has been deeply effected by the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chris Carlson
Canada’s Hearn looks to shake off poor 2020 results with more consistent play

Canada’s Hearn looks to shake off poor 2020 results with more consistent play

Malnati birdies half of holes to take 1-shot lead in Bermuda

Malnati birdies half of holes to take 1-shot lead in Bermuda

Penny Oleksiak swims the 200 metre race during the 2018 Team Canada finals in Edmonton on Wednesday July 18, 2018. The number of young swimmers in Canada is dwindling because of barriers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Swimming Canada urges pools to accommodate youth, says can be done safely

Swimming Canada urges pools to accommodate youth, says can be done safely

Canada's Meaghan Mikkelson (12) and Marie-Philip Poulin (29) defends against United States' Hilary Knight (21) during the third period of a rivalry series women's hockey game in Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada's director of women's national teams, hopes a Rivalry Series against the United States can happen this winter.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Dwyer
Canadian women’s hockey team yearns for international competition

Canadian women’s hockey team yearns for international competition

Most Read