Headline: A 57-year-old woman took a sip of her coffee. Not impressed? Then consider that she is almost completely paralyzed and was using a robotic arm connected to her brain.
Picking up a cup, bringing it to your mouth and taking a sip: this action is probably so commonplace for you that you've never thought about how you actually do it. The woman in this study emphatically did. She became paralyzed after a stroke, and has been unable to speak or use her limbs ever since. This happened about 15 years before she was able to participate in a promising study in the US. Within this study, she ended up managing to control a robotic arm placed on a table in front of her by thinking only of movements of her own hand.
This thought based control of the robotic arm is not telekinesis, but the result of decades of research into Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI): technology to enable direct communication between the brain and a computer. In this case, a part of the cortex named the motor cortex which contains cells that almost directly control the muscles in your body. Scientists have been doing experiments for years to capture the activity of those cells with implanted electrodes. From these, they can approximately deduce what movement someone wants to perform.
Before the patient in question in this article was able to control the robotic arm to serve herself a drink, researchers already succeeded in using signals from the motor cortex to control a mouse pointer on a computer screen. But that a patient can now control a robotic arm is a new milestone. It offers the prospect of greater independence for people who currently rely entirely on care. However, the technology is not yet very practical. Taking a sip of coffee with the robotic arm requires the presence of a technician who spends over half an hour calibrating the equipment. In addition, the arm must be connected by cables to the patient's head. The researchers hope that one day it will be possible to use BCI technology to allow paralyzed people to regain control of their own limbs.
Watch a video about this study here.
Original Author: Daan Schetselaar
Translated into English and adapted: Sophie Ruppert