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What an Idea! Woman Moves Robotic Arm with Her Thoughts
The Washington Post

A paralyzed Massachusetts woman picked up a bottle of coffee and sipped from it by moving a robotic arm with her thoughts, researchers reported recently — the latest advance in the race to restore movement to people who have lost control of their muscles.

The moment marked the first time in 15 years the 58-year-old, who had suffered a stroke, had been ableto pick up anything of her own volition.

Using the Braingate neural interface system, a paralyzed woman was able to use her thoughts to control a robotic arm and serve herself coffee for the first time since she became paralyzed nearly 15 years ago.

Researchers called the advance the first demonstration of reaching and grasping by a brain-controlled prosthetic arm. In recent years, other paralyzed patients have high-fived with a different robotic arm and moved a cursor around a computer screen simply by thinking about it.

While the scientists involved cautioned that it will be years before such devices will be widely available, they hailed the advance as a milestone.

“Things in this field are exploding right now,” said Andrew Schwartz, who is developing another thoughtcontrolled robotic arm at the University of Pittsburgh but who was not involved in the recent advance. “You’re going to be seeing much more in the near future — much more natural movements, faster movements, approaching what normal (people) can do.”

In the new study, researchers implanted a tiny electrode chip — the size of a baby aspirin — into the brains of two patients. Both had suffered strokes in their brain stems that left them in a “locked-in” state. While their brains worked normally, connections to the muscles below had been severed, leaving them quadriplegic and unable to speak.

Placed on the motor cortex — a sliver of brain that controls movement — the chip listened to signals generated by the patients’ brain cells as they thought about moving their own arms. A computer read that signal, interpreted it and sent movement messages to the robotic arm.

“I just imagined moving my own arm, and the (robotic) arm moved where I wanted it to go,” the second patient, a 66-year-old man, told the researchers in response to questions submitted earlier by journalists. He can slowly communicate by moving his eyes as an assistant points to letters on a board.

A cable attached to the skull transmitted the signal.

“They’re basically plugged in,” said John Donoghue, a Brown University neuroscientist involved in the new work, which was reported in the journal "Nature."

Ongoing work seeks to remove the cable, making the system wireless and more practical, Donoghue said in a teleconference with reporters.

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