Two people who are virtually paralyzed from the neck down have learned to manipulate a robotic arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach out and grab objects. One of them, a woman, was able to retrieve a bottle containing coffee and drink it from a straw — the first time she had served herself since her stroke 15 years earlier, scientists reported on Wednesday.
“She had a smile on her face that I and the research team will never forget,” said Dr. Leigh R. Hochberg of the Department of Veterans Affairs, an author of a study reporting the achievement.
The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the first published demonstration that humans with severe brain injuries can effectively control a prosthetic arm, using tiny brain implants that transmit neural signals to a computer.
Scientists have predicted for years that this brain-computer connection would one day allow people with injuries to the brain and spinal cord to live more independent lives. Previously, researchers had shown that humans could learn to move a computer cursor with their thoughts, and that monkeys could manipulate a robotic arm.
The technology is not yet ready for use outside the lab, experts said, but the new study is an important step forward, providing dramatic evidence that brain-controlled prosthetics are within reach.
“It is a spectacular result, in many respects,” said John Kalaska, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal who was not involved in the study, “and really the logical next step in the development of this technology. This is the kind of work that has to be done, and it’s further confirmation of the feasibility of using this kind of approach to give paralyzed people some degree of autonomy.”