Timon Singh

Mind-Controlled Robotic Arm to Transform the Lives of the Paralyzed

by , 05/17/12

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Here at Inhabitat, we are huge fans of any technology that can improve the lives of disabled people, such as exoskeletons and robotic suits. However, Brown University, working with the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, have developed a robotic arm that allows disabled people to use their thoughts to grab objects thanks to a computer-brain interface.

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The research, which has been published in Nature, reports that two people with tetraplegia are now able to reach for and grasp objects in three-dimensional space using robotic arms that they controlled directly with brain activity. The BrainGate neural interface system is an investigational device that is currently being studied under an Investigational Device Exemption, but it is already having real-world effects. One participant used the system to serve herself coffee for the first time since becoming paralyzed nearly 15 years ago.

The two participants, a 58-year-old woman (“S3”) and a 66-year-old man (“T2”), had each been paralyzed by a brainstem stroke several years earlier which had left them with no functional control of their limbs. However, by using neural activity to directly control two different robotic arms, one developed by the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics and the other by DEKA Research and Development Corp., they were able too perform reaching and grasping tasks across a broad three-dimensional space — something that had previously been impossible.

For the test, S3 and T2 were able to control the arms to reach for and grasp foam targets that were placed in front of them using flexible supports. S3 was even able to use the DLR robot to pick up a bottle of coffee, bring it to her mouth, and issue a command to tip it allowing her to drink through a straw. She was then able to return the bottle to the table.

All the participant needed to control her BrainGate-enabled, robotic-arm was a combination of two-dimensional movements across a table top plus a “grasp” command to either grasp and lift, or tilt the robotic hand.

“Our goal in this research is to develop technology that will restore independence and mobility for people with paralysis or limb loss,” said lead author Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neuroengineer and critical care neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard. “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 S3’s smile when she served herself coffee of her own volition for the first time in almost 15 years.”

Click here to see a video of the experiment.

+ Brown University

Cia BBC News

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