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Nearly 15 years after a stroke left her paralyzed and unable to speak, 59-year-old Cathy Hutchinson controlled a robotic arm to lift coffee to her mouth and take a drink by thinking about moving her own arm.

Mind over matter

Patients with paralysis use thought to control robotic arm

25/May/2012

THE POWER OF THOUGHT: Hutchinson, who was paralyzed after a stroke in 1996, takes a drink of coffee using the BrainGate system.

Nearly 15 years after a stroke left her paralyzed and unable to speak, 59-year-old Cathy Hutchinson controlled a robotic arm to lift coffee to her mouth and take a drink by thinking about moving her own arm. The achievement, reported in the May 17 issue of Nature, is one of the latest advances in brain-computer interfaces, restorative neurotechnology and assistive robot technology made by BrainGate2 – a collaboration among researchers at the MGH, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown University and the German Aerospace Center. The group has spent years exploring the potential of the revolutionary BrainGate system that enabled Hutchinson, who was first treated by the MGH Stroke Service in 1996, to take that very special sip.

“Our goal in this research is to develop technology that will restore independence and mobility for people with paralysis or limb loss,” says Leigh Hochberg, MD, PhD, an MGH critical care neurologist and BrainGate2 sponsor-investigator. “We have much more work to do, but the encouraging progress is demonstrated not only in data, but even more so in our research participant’s smile when she served herself coffee on her own volition for the first time in almost 15 years.”

BrainGate is an investigational medical device based on a pill-sized, electrode-covered sensor which is implanted in the brain to record neural activity triggered by the intention to move a paralyzed limb. An external computer decodes the neural activity and translates it into commands that direct the movement of assistive devices, such as the robotic arm. Hutchinson and another BrainGate study participant, a 66-year-old man, both paralyzed by brainstem strokes, took part in the April and October 2011 demonstrations in which they used BrainGate to directly control two different robotic arms and perform reaching and grasping tasks. Their feats build upon a 2006 breakthrough in which participants demonstrated that BrainGate could be used by individuals with paralysis to operate a cursor on a computer screen.

“This research depends on close collaborations, and we’ve benefitted not only from a great team of physicians, nurses, engineers and scientists, but also from the incredible support provided by MGH’s research administration,” says Hochberg. “We look forward to developing a neurally controlled communication interface for people with locked-in syndrome and for people with spinal cord injury and other injuries and disorders, and we continue to work toward the dream of reconnecting the brain to the limb.”




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