Paralyzed patients control robotic arm using brain activity

Two tetraplegic participants successfully performed reaching and grasping tasks using a robotic arm controlled directly through neural activity, according to a study recently published in Nature.

The participants, a 58-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man who were both paralyzed in all four limbs after a brainstem stroke, used the BrainGate neural interface system to control two types of robotic arms, a DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics model and DEKA Research and Development Corp. model. The BrainGate system was developed at Brown University and involves implantation of a device in the motor cortex part of the brain. The device contains 96 electrodes that record the neural activity associated with intended movement, and an external computer translates the pattern of impulses into commands that control the robotic device.

Previous BrainGate studies involved participants controlling a cursor on a computer screen, but this study is the first demonstration of neural control of a robotic device through three-dimensional space. The two participants used the arm to reach for and grasp foam targets that were placed in front of them, and the woman was able to pick up and drink from a bottle filled with coffee before successfully placing it back on the table.

“Our goal in this research is to develop technology that will restore independence and mobility for people with paralysis or limb loss,” Leigh Hochberg, MD, PhD, lead author and a neuroengineer and critical care neurologist who holds appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard, stated in a press release. “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 her smile when she served herself coffee of her own volition for the first time in almost 15 years.”

Over the last 2 years, the VA has been conducting an optimization study of the DEKA prosthetic arm at several sites with veterans and active duty service members who have lost an arm. Feedback from the study is helping DEKA engineers to refine the artificial arm’s design and function.

“Brain-computer interfaces, such as BrainGate, have the potential to provide an unprecedented level of functional control over prosthetic arms of the future,” said Joel Kupersmith, MD, VA chief research and development officer, stated in the release. 

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