BrainGate chip enables 2 tetraplegics to control robotic arms

A 58-year-old woman, paralyzed by a stroke for almost 15 years, uses her thoughts to control a robotic arm, thanks to the BrainGate neural interface system--courtesy of Brown University

BrainGate is in the news again with an absolutely amazing advance. The chip, about as big as a baby aspirin and implanted in the motor cortex, enabled two people paralyzed by a brain stem stroke who couldn't move their arms and legs to control robotic arms with their thoughts. A 58-year-old woman successfully told the robotic arm to bring a bottle of coffee to her mouth, and she drank from it, the scientists reveal. And she and the 66-year-old man were able to tell the robot arm to pick up foam "targets."

Powerfully, the successful BrainGate2 pilot trial combines the accomplishments of plenty of folks, like John Donoghue, a Brown University and VA neuroscientist who first developed BrainGate and lead study author Leigh Hochberg, a neuroengineer and neurologist with appointments at Brown, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Full disclosure: I previously worked at Brown, promoting the BrainGate work for both professors.)

Tests took place with two robotic arms that mimic how an arm and hand would actually work: one from the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, and the other developed by the DEKA Research and Development Corp (founded by Dean Kamen). In additional to Brown, MGH, Harvard and the VA, the German Aerospace Center also participated. But wait, there's more: The Providence VA Medical Center and Stanford University are also part of the ongoing BrainGate2 research team. And the journal Nature has published the details.

The new pilot study represents a big advance over previous research using BrainGate, where subjects several years back were able control a computer screen cursor or simple robotic devices by using their thoughts. Interestingly, the chip was even the driving force behind a startup called Cyberkinetics, a now-defunct company. (With its demise, the technology reverted back to Brown). And the breakthrough caused quite a stir, drawing international media attention. Back in 2008, the CBS news program "60 Minutes" profiled the research in detail. But this latest BrainGate study, enabled by an Investigational Device Exemption, goes much further because of the more complex commands and the interaction with a highly-functioning robotic arm. BrainGate's 96 electrodes basically recorded the neural activity connected to the thought command, then an outside computer translates those neural signals into a command for the robot arms and the robot arms act.

We have a significant first here: As the researchers note, this is the first demonstration and also first peer-reviewed report of its kind where patients who have tetraplegia could use brain signals to control a robot arm and make it do something tangible, rather than just move a cursor or cause a robot to move. The technology is years away from everyday use, but could feasibly be used at some point to help restore independence and mobility for paralyzed people. For folks that lose a limb in war or an accident, BrainGate could enable them to command a robotic arm to perform detailed tasks.

"We have much more work to do," Hochberg said in a statement. "But the encouraging progress of this research is demonstrated not only in the reach-and-grasp data, but even more so in [the female patient's] smile when she served herself coffee of her own volition for the first time in almost 15 years."

- here's the Brown release
- read The New York Times' coverage
- check out the journal abstract

Special Report: Cyberkinetics - 2004 Fierce 15 revisited