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A closer look at the woman who moved a robotic arm with her mind

As has been widely reported today, paralyzed patients for the first time have moved a robotic arm using only their brain activity. In a small clinical trial described in a Nature paper, two patients each used a tiny device implanted in their motor cortex to move robotic limbs to reach, grasp and drink coffee from a bottle.

In an article from The Atlantic, writer Jessica Benko tells the story of one of the study participants, a woman who enrolled in the trial after a stroke left her paralyzed and unable to speak:

The study's codirector, a conscientious young neuroscientist named Leigh Hochberg [MD, PhD], was blunt with Cathy: Whatever the failures or successes of the study, she could not hope that the results would assist her in her lifetime. "There are no expected benefits this early on in the research," Hochberg told me. "What we're doing, and what Cathy knew when we were starting and what she enthusiastically joined, is an endeavor to test and develop a device we hope will help other people with paralysis in the future."

Cathy's device was implanted in 2005, and the researchers first target was for her to control a computer cursor. As Cathy concentrated on moving her hand, her efforts unspooled on screens in front of the researchers, who tried to use the information from her brain as a sort of virtual mind-controlled mouse. When the researchers turned control of the cursor over to Cathy's neurons, the cursor immediately began to move haltingly across the screen. Cathy couldn't believe her eyes. "I was numb with shock and disbelief," she wrote to me, "so I moved the cursor all over the screen."

An article and video published by Nature News describe how Hutchinson smiled when she first used the robotic arm. "We’ll never forget that smile,” Hochberg commented.

Hochberg and his team are continuing their work in this area, and last fall Stanford announced it was collaborating with the group by serving as a trial site for BrainGate2. Jaimie Henderson, MD, is lead investigator of the Stanford branch of the trial.

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