Cathy Hutchinson suffered from a stroke many years ago that left her debilitated and unable to move and talk. But a group of researchers led by neurologist and engineer Leigh Hochberg of Brown University is about to change all of that. “When the woman with the brain stem stroke reached out for that thermos of coffee and put it in her mouth and then she put it back down, the smile on her face was remarkable,” Hochberg said. Hochberg directs the BrainGate2 clinical trial, an ongoing test of the BrainGate system funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Researchers connected the 58-year-old woman’s brain to a computer that runs a robotic arm. With a 4-millimeter wide brain-implanted chip, the system conducts signals from motion-controlling neurons to a computer that decodes the signals and turns them into software commands. For the researchers to map a person’s neural activity to the robotic arm’s movement, they moved the arm while asking the participants to imagine themselves controlling it.
Once the scientists had taught the computer which patterns would normally make a participant’s arm reach out for a bottle of drink, they hardwired them as the command for the robot arm to do the same thing, but with the signal coming directly from the participant’s brain as they imagined holding the bottle and bringing it near to their mouth for drinking. The researchers are hoping to make the system smaller, stable and wireless in the future so that people with brain injuries and physical disorders can use it.
Robotic limbs or extensions can help us in many ways. This woman who completed the London Marathon using a ReWalk Exoskeleton is a great example.