For most of us, reaching out and picking up a bottle of water to have a drink is such a simple task that we aren’t even capable of taking it for granted. It just happens. Consciously, we barely register the action, as it’s just that engrained in our existence, and requires so little focus and thought. However, there are many people for whom this simple action is impossible. For people like this, an ongoing study at Rhode Island’s Brown University holds an immense amount of promise.
The study, dubbed BrainGate2, seeks to aid the disabled by implanting a small microchip in the motor cortex of their brains that effectively allows them to control a robotic arm with their thoughts. Brown University’s official press release offers an in-depth explanation:
A 58-year-old woman (“S3”) and a 66-year-old man (“T2”) participated in the study. They had each been paralyzed by a brainstem stroke years earlier which left them with no functional control of their limbs. In the research, the participants used neural activity to directly control two different robotic arms, one developed by the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics and the other by DEKA Research and Development Corp., to perform reaching and grasping tasks across a broad three-dimensional space. The BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial employs the investigational BrainGate system initially developed at Brown University, in which a baby aspirin-sized device with a grid of 96 tiny electrodes is implanted in the motor cortex — a part of the brain that is involved in voluntary movement. The electrodes are close enough to individual neurons to record the neural activity associated with intended movement. An external computer translates the pattern of impulses across a population of neurons into commands to operate assistive devices, such as the DLR and DEKA robot arms used in the study now reported in Nature.
Though this sort of thing has been standard fare in science fiction for decades, the actual mechanics of creating a system like this is exceedingly complicated. The researchers long ago figured out how to use these implants to control objects in a two-dimensional space, and the act of grasping is relatively simple, but maneuvering the robotic arm in three-dimensional space complicates the necessary commands exponentially. “To move from this type of two-dimensional movement to movements involving reaching out for an object, grasping it and then guiding it in three-dimensional space is a huge step for us,” said John Donoghue, director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science.
As with all such scientific breakthroughs, though this seems quite promising, there is still much work to be done. The arm, as is, is a bit too unwieldy for general use, and its actions, while surprisingly dextrous, aren’t exactly on par with the deft movements of the human hand. “We have much more work to do, but the encouraging progress of this research is demonstrated not only in the reach-and-grasp data, but even more so in S3’s smile when she served herself coffee of her own volition for the first time in almost 15 years,” said Dr. Leigh Hockberg, lead author of the BrainGate2 study.
On the positive side, the researchers are quite pleased at how readily the human body has accepted the brain implants. To date, 15 people have been given the devices and none of them have shown ill effects from the procedure. The team’s next goal is to develop a system of reliable wireless transmission that would negate the need for wires attached directly to the implant.
Then, once the robotic arm is up to snuff, the research team hopes to reconfigure the system to send commands directly to a patient’s muscles. That’s still a long ways off, but for those who have severed their spinal cords, it offers a tantalizing possibility of one day being able to control their own bodies again.
Nature has a very impressive video of the robotic arm in action that we would highly recommend you watch. It’s the kind of thing that makes you realize we’re living the sci-fi dreams of our father’s generation.