Using only her thoughts, a Massachusetts woman paralyzed for 15 years directed a robotic arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her lips, researchers report in the latest advance in harnessing brain waves to help disabled people.
In the past year, similar stories have included a quadriplegic man in Pennsylvania who made a robotic arm give a high-five and stroke his girlfriend's hand, and a partially paralyzed man who remotely controlled a small robot that scooted around in a Swiss lab.
It's startling stuff. But will the experimental brain-controlled technology ever help paralyzed people in everyday life?
Experts in the technology and in rehabilitation medicine say they are optimistic that it will, once technology improves and the cost comes down.
The latest report, which was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature, comes from scientists at Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center in Rhode Island, Harvard Medical School and elsewhere.
It describes how two people who lost use of their arms and legs because of strokes years before were able to control free-standing robotic arms with the help of a tiny sensor implanted in their brains.
The sensor, about the size of a baby aspirin, eavesdropped on the electrical activity of a few dozen brain cells as the study participants imagined moving their arms. The chip then sent signals to a computer, which translated them into commands to the robotic arms.
Cathy Hutchinson of East Taunton, Mass., was asked to use the arm to drink coffee. That involved picking up the bottle, bringing it to her lips so she could sip from a straw and putting the bottle back on the table. She succeeded in four out of six tries with the arm, which was specially programmed for this task.
"The smile on her face was just a wonderful thing to see," said Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a researcher with the Providence VA, Brown University and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Researchers said that in Hutchinson's case the results show that the implanted chip still worked after five years.
Andrew Schwartz, who is doing similar research at the University of Pittsburgh, said the coffee-sipping was encouraging because it represents an everyday task a paralyzed person might want to do. "I think it's showing this technology has therapeutic potential," he said.
But he and others said the technology faces a number of hurdles to widespread use, like reducing its high cost, making it more reliable and refining the technology.
Another step toward wide use will be enticing companies to invest the money to make commercial products. Just when that might happen is an open question, Schwartz said, but it could be in the next couple of years, with prostheses or free-standing robotic arms on the market a few years after that.