Paralyzed Woman Moves Robot Arm With Her Brain

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Connie K. Ho for

For one lucky woman, 15 years of paralysis was broken on Saturday, April 12 when the 58-year-old woman, who is unable to speak, controlled a robotic arm by thinking about a particular action. This resulted in the robotic arm picking up a bottle of coffee, lifting it her to mouth, allowing her to take a sip. This feat is part of the progress made in a project regarding brain-computer interfaces restorative neurotechnology and assistive robot technology.

The research, published in the May 17 issue of the journal Nature, is a collaborative effort by BrainGate2; it includes participation by Brown University, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Harvard Medical School, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The smile on her face was a remarkable thing to see. For all of us involved, we were encouraged that the research is making the kind of progress that we had all hoped,” described lead investigator Dr. Leigh Hochberg in a prepared statement.

Besides the female, a 66-year-old male participated in the study; both had been paralyzed by a brain stroke years earlier, which had left them without the ability to control their limbs. The two used neural activity to control robotic arms that had been developed by the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics as well as the DEKA Research and Development Corp. The robotic arms could complete activities that required reaching and grasping in a three-dimensional space.

The BrainGate2 is a pilot program that uses the BrainSystem that was developed at Brown University. The system features a small aspirin-sized device that is implanted in the motor cortex, which can focus on voluntary movement. The electrodes record the neural activity of the neurons, which is then translated by an external computer into commands to control assistive devices like the DLR and DEKA robot arms.

The study is the first demonstration and first peer-reviewed-article that has people with tetraplegia using brain signals to operate a robot arm in a three-dimensional space and completing a task that is normally done by the arm. The two subjects were able to control the arms with the help of flexible supports.

“Our goal in this research is to develop technology that will restore independence and mobility for people with paralysis or limb loss,” remarked Hochberg, the Sponsor-Investigator for the BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial, in the statement. “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.”

Some of the funding was supported through Veterans Affairs (VA), which works to improve the lives of injured veterans.

“VA is honored to have played a role in this exciting and promising area of research,” commented VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in the statement. “Today’s announcement represents a great step forward toward improving the quality of life for Veterans and others who have either lost limbs or are paralyzed.”

Researchers were also positive about the results as they observed that the female subject was able to direct the movement five years after the BrainGate was implanted. They believe that it shows the amount of time that implanted brain-computer interface electrodes can remain viable and useful in completing command signals. The report also shows how much progress has been made in brain-computer interfaces since the BrainGate was first demonstrated over ten years ago.

“This paper reports an important advance by rigorously demonstrating in more than one participant that precise three-dimensional neural control of robot arms is not only possible, but also repeatable,” explained John Donoghue, the VA and Brown neuroscientist who is a co-author in the study, in the statement. “We’ve moved significantly closer to returning everyday functions, like serving yourself a sip of coffee, usually performed effortlessly by the arm and hand, for people who are unable to move their own limbs. We are also encouraged to see useful control more than five years after implant of the BrainGate array in one of our participants. 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.”

In the experiment, the robot arm acts as a replacement for the human arm.

“I just imagined moving my own arm and the [DEKA] arm moved where I wanted it to go,” said the male subject on his experience with the robotic arm.

The DRL arm, which was designed to assist with activities of the arm and to interact with human users, could be useful for people with different disabilities.

“This is what we were hoping for with this arm. We wanted to create an arm that could be used intuitively by varying forms of control. The arm is already in use by numerous research labs around the world that use its unique interaction and safety capabilities. This is a compelling demonstration of the potential utility of the arm by a person with paralysis,” remarked Patrick van der Smagt, head of bionics and assistive robotics at DLR, in the statement.

To further the research, the team hopes to observe the technology with more individuals. In the future, they hope that the robotic arms will be wireless and fully automated. For the present, the sensor and the user have to be connected to cables to the rest of the system. Researchers will also look into improving the precision and control of the robotic arms.

“It is a spectacular result, in many respects,” John Kalaska, a University of Montreal neuroscientist unaffiliated with the study, told the New York Times. “And really the logical next step in the development of this technology. This is the kind of work that has to be done, and it´s further confirmation of the feasibility of using this kind of approach to give paralyzed people some degree of autonomy.”

Image 2 (below): In a clinical trial, a woman used the BrainGate system to mentally control a robotic arm and reach for a drink. Credit: The BrainGate Collaboration

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