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Wednesday, researchers reported stroke survivor Cathy Hutchinson did something she hasn’t been able to do in 15 years—move a bottle to her lips and take a sip from a straw. This may not sound like earth shattering news, but for Cathy and the researchers who created the technology she used, it was monumental—Cathy used only her mind to accomplish this task.
Cathy has been paralyzed as a result of a stroke she suffered several years ago. Since then the 58-year-old has been unable to use her hands and has been in a “locked-in” state meaning that although her brain worked, the connection between it and the area below it was lost. Cathy retained the ability to produce these signals despite not being able to produce any actual movement.
Cathy and a male patient in a similar state were connected to a computer by means of the BrainGate neural interface system. The BrainGate neural interface system involves the implantation of a tiny electrode—the size of a baby aspirin on the motor cortex. The motor cortex is the area of the brain that controls movement. This chip listens to the signals generated by the patient as they think about moving their arm, translates these signals and sends instructions to the robotic arm to produce the movement.
Cathy and the other patient, a 66-year-old man, were asked to perform various tasks including touching and grabbing foam balls. Cathy was able to accomplish the tasks set before her about 50 percent of the time with a prosthetic arm manufactured by DEKA and about 70 percent with a prosthesis made by the German Aerospace Center.
Even more impressive is that the BrainGate system was implanted in Cathy’s brain about five years ago and still produces signals although they are weaker than they were previously. The researchers speculate that this weakening could be due to scar tissue build-up.
The key factor in the production of this technology was programming computers to interpret the signals produced by the brain as movement. The researchers spent quite a bit of time training both the patients and the computers. The computer receives signals from the interface via a cable that is plugged into a port in the patient’s head. The researchers asked the patients to imagine moving their arm in the same way the researchers were moving a prosthetic arm. Later, the computer utilized these data banks when the patients were asked to move the arm.
This technology is of paramount importance to those who have lost the ability to move and the researchers are encouraged that this is among the first steps to independence for those afflicted with paralysis.