"The smile on her face was a remarkable thing to see. For all of us involved, we were encouraged that the research is making the kind of progress that we had all hoped," said the trial's lead investigator, Leigh Hochberg, M.D., Ph.D., in a press release issued by the National Institutes of Health, which provided some of the funding. Hochberg is an associate professor of engineering at Brown University and a critical care neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)/Harvard Medical School.
The field of brain-computer interface research is not new, but this is the first peer-reviewed report of people using brain signals to control a robotic arm, making it perform in three-dimensional space much as their natural arms once did. By imagining they were controlling their paralyzed limb, they were able to move the robotic arm. Brain activity is detected as electrical activity by the BrainGate chip, processed by an external computer, and fed into a robot that translates the signals into movement.
More research is underway, and in fact this clinical trial is recruiting more volunteers.
Caption: The BrainGate array, which is implanted on the motor cortex, comprises nearly 100 electrodes on a chip the size of a baby aspirin. Credit: www.braingate2.org Usage Restrictions: With Credit.
With future advances, researchers hope to be able to improve the quality of movement in prosthetic limbs or to restore in part the function of paralyzed limbs, perhaps by creating an electronic by-pass to normal nerves.
"This is another big jump forward to control the movements of a robotic arm in three-dimensional space. We're getting closer to restoring some level of everyday function to people with limb paralysis," said John Donoghue, Ph.D., who leads the development of BrainGate technology and is the director of the Institute for Brain Science at Brown University.
Beyond therapy, it is possible to imagine other uses as we humans and our machines co-evolve and increasingly converge, probably to do more than drink coffee.
This report is published in the May 17, 2012 issue of Nature.