Posted on May 20, 2012 · Posted in Brain Injury

Talk about mind over matter.

In a study published last week, a paralyzed woman and paralyzed man were both able to move and control a robotic arm with their thoughts, their brain signals.

Brown University issued a press release on the fascinating research, which employed brain implants, on Wednesday.

“On April 12, 2011, nearly 15 years after she became paralyzed and unable to speak, a woman controlled a robotic arm by thinking about moving her arm and hand to lift a bottle of coffee to her mouth and take a drink,” Brown said in its press release.

“That achievement is one of the advances in brain-computer interfaces, restorative neurotechnology, and assistive robot technology described in the May 17 edition of the journal Nature by the BrainGate2 collaboration of researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).”

The two people who participated in the study were a 58-year-old woman, dubbed “S3″  and a 66-year-old man, “T2.” Newspaper stories identified the woman as Cathy Hutchinson of Massachusetts and the man as Robert Veillette of Connecticut. Both became paralyzed, with no control of their limbs, after suffering so-called “brainstem” strokes several year sago.

The research’s amazing results were widely covered in newspapers across the county, including USA Today.

In the research, the participants used neural activity to directly control two different robotic arms  to reach and grasp.

“The BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial employed the investigational BrainGate system initially developed at Brown University, in which a baby aspirin-sized device with a grid of 96 tiny electrodes is implanted in the motor cortex — a part of the brain that is involved in voluntary movement,” Brown said in its press release.

“The electrodes are close enough to individual neurons to record the neural activity associated with intended movement,” the release said.” An external computer translates the pattern of impulses across a population of neurons into commands to operate assistive devices, such as the … robot arms used in the study now reported in Nature.”

The BrainGate2 neural interface system is an implanted micro electrode device. It detects brain signals, which can be translated by a computer into machine instructions, allowing control of robotic devices by thought.

“This technology was made possible by decades of investment and research into how the brain controls movement,” Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which helped fund the study, said in a statement. “It’s been thrilling to see the technology evolve from studies of basic neurophysiology and move into clinical trials, where it is showing significant promise for people with brain injuries and disorders.”

The BrainGate participants have had previous triumphs translating their thoughts to action via the brain implants: They were able to control of a cursor on a computer screen and had rudimentary control of simple robotic devices.

“The study represents the first demonstration and the first peer-reviewed report of people with tetraplegia using brain signals to control a robotic arm in three-dimensional space to complete a task usually performed by their arm,” Brown said in its press release.

“Specifically, S3 and T2 controlled the arms to reach for and grasp foam targets that were placed in front of them using flexible supports,” the release said. “In addition, S3 used the … robot to pick up a bottle of coffee, bring it to her mouth, issue a command to tip it, drink through a straw, and return the bottle to the table. Her BrainGate-enabled, robotic-arm control during the drinking task required a combination of two-dimensional movements across a table top plus a ‘grasp’ command to either grasp and lift or tilt the robotic hand.”

The sponsor-investigator for the BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial had plenty to say in a statement.

“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 who holds appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown University, 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.”

As Brown pointed out in its press release, after almost 15 years “a part of the brain essentially ‘disconnected’ from its original target by a brainstem stroke was still able to direct the complex, multidimensional movement of an external arm.”

Part of the funding for the research is from the VA, which is trying to help injured vets.

“VA is honored to have played a role in this exciting and promising area of research,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. “Today’s announcement represents a great step forward toward improving the quality of life for veterans and others who have either lost limbs or are paralyzed.”

The other news out of the research was that Hutchinson controlled the robotic arm more than five years after her BrainGate electrode array was first implanted.

“This sets a new benchmark for how long implanted brain-computer interface electrodes have remained viable and provided useful command signals,” Brown said.

John Donoghue, the VA and Brown neuroscientist who pioneered BrainGate more than a decade ago and who is co-senior author of the study, said the new study was a testament to how much progress has been made in the field of brain-computer interfaces.

“This paper reports an important advance by rigorously demonstrating in more than one participant that precise three-dimensional neural control of robot arms is not only possible, but also repeatable,” Donoghue, who directs the Brown Institute for Brain Science, said in a statement.

“We’ve moved significantly closer to returning everyday functions, like serving yourself a sip of coffee, usually performed effortlessly by the arm and hand, for people who are unable to move their own limbs,” he said. “We are also encouraged to see useful control more than five years after implant of the BrainGate array in one of our participants. This work is a critical step toward realizing the long-term goal of creating a neurotechnology that will restore movement, control, and independence to people with paralysis or limb loss.”

The robots acted as a substitute for each participant’s paralyzed limb in the study.

“The robotic arms responded to the participants’ intent to move as they imagined reaching for each foam target,” Brown said in its release. “The robot hand grasped the target when the participants imagined a hand squeeze. Because the diameter of the targets was more than half the width of the robot hand openings, the task required the participants to exert precise control.”

The study used two advanced robotic arms: the DLR Light-Weight Robot III with DLR five-fingered hand and the DEKA Arm System.

The DLR LWR-III is designed to assist in recreating actions like the human arm and hand and to interact with human users.

DEKA Research and Development developed the DEKA Arm System for amputees, through funding from the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

In addition to Hochberg, Donoghue, and van der Smagt, other authors on the paper are Daniel Bacher, Beata Jarosiewicz, Nicolas Masse, John Simeral, Joern Vogel, Sami Haddadin, Jie Liu and Sydney Cash.


About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447