The amazing video of Cathy, a woman who had a brain stem stroke, using her own mental thoughts to manipulate a robotic arm so that she could sip coffee from a thermos for the first time in 15 years, made most of the national news programs.
But behind the news reports and the video is the story of how the researchers at Braingate2 at Brown University continue to make remarkable progress in efforts to translate thoughts into actions.
Providence Business News asked Leigh Hochberg, a neuroengineer at Brown University, and co-author of the research paper that was published in Nature describing the most recent breakthrough, to talk about the science behind the effort.
PBN: What are the most important findings as a result of this breakthrough?
HOCHBERG: There are several important new findings and conclusions. For the first time, people with no function, no use of arms and legs and unable to speak, as a result of a brain stem stroke, were able to reach and grasp a robotic arm – by thinking about the movement. The effort has been ongoing for more than five years.
PBN: How does the system work?
HOCHBERG: A very small sensor was implanted into the motor cortex in the brain, which is very important in the control of limbs. The sensor was 4 x 4 millimeters. It enabled use to transmit and record neural signals. We were then able to convert and translate the neural activity into control over a device, such as a computer cursor or a prosthetic limb.
PBN: So, you were able to translate thought into action, using neural signals?
HOCHBERG: Yes, both of these individuals [who we worked with in the study] were able to think about the movement of their arm and hand and then reach out, using a robotic arm, and grasp a thermos of coffee and drink from it. For Cathy, it was the first time in 15 years that she had been able to pick up something by herself and drink from it.
PBN: What does that tell you about the brain that you didn’t know?
HOCHBERG: It tells us that this part of the brain, 15 years after a stroke occurred, is not only still functioning, but it is capable of providing a powerful signal toward the movement of the arm. It is a benchmark for brain-computer interface.
PBN: How significant is the fact that the research paper was published in Nature?
HOCHBERG: The most important thing about any scientific or medical advance is that it be carefully peer reviewed, prior to public discussions of findings. It provides validation to the scientific enterprise.
PBN: What are the next steps in your research at Brown?
HOCHBERG: We want to work on communications, helping people who were unable to move their limbs and unable to speak be able to point and click a computer cursor, using their brain, and then be able to type on a computer.
We also want to develop improvements with the use robotic assisted devices, helping those with paralysis with the activities of daily living.
The real dream of our research is to reconnect the brain to limb. The stimulating path for that technology already exists. The next things we need to focus on is developing a better understanding of the fundamental neurosciencee. We also need to develop a smaller, fully implanted device, similar to a cardiac pacemaker
Our work has been successful in large part because of the power of the collaborative environment at the Brown Institute for Brain Sciences and the leadership of John Donoghue.