What a few years ago seemed like science fiction today is true: two people paralyzed, could not move their limbs in the last 15 years, managed to control a robotic arm using only the mind, successfully managing to drink from a bottle containing coffee.
The two patients who participated in the study, Cathy and Bob, have suffered strokes that have affected the brain stem, becoming quadriplegic, without the ability to speak. Neurosurgeons have implanted in the motor cortex a small device containing about 100 electrode thickness of a hair, to record neural signals associated with its intention of moving.
The footage filmed by researchers can see how Cathy uses his thoughts to operate a robotic arm that makes him shake in his hand a bottle of coffee and bring it to his lips. The patient drinks and smiles. “We will never forget that smile,” said Leigh Hochberg, neuroinginer at Brown University in Rhode Island and also coauthor of the study.
The secret of successful scientists is successful decoding neural signals that are recorded using implant and convert these signals into digital messages through which is controlled robotic device. The movement is more complex, the decoding task is more difficult.
John Donoghue, director of the Institute Brown Brain Sciences, in which laboratory research took place, says that this is a first step, but the open road this study promises to be long. “Currently, the movements are too slow and does not have sufficient accuracy so that decoding algorithms must improve,” said Donoghue.
In the long run, researchers will build systems that do not require the use of wires. Donoghue says that wireless systems are already under development. Later, in the more distant future, researchers hope to not need robots, managing to convey decoded brain signals directly into the muscles of paraplegic patients.