Years ago Cathy Hutchinson suffered a stroke that left her completely paralyzed and unable to speak. Today, even though she is still just as paralyzed, she can steer a wheel chair and take a drink without another person’s assistance. All she has to do is think it, and it happens.
Here are two different videos showing Cathy’s mind-directed activities: in this YouTube video she takes a drink from a cup without assistance and in this video from 60 Minutes she controls a computer cursor and steers a wheel chair .
Cathy is an early participant in the clinical trials conducted by a group of researchers called BrainGate, whose mission is to provide severely motor-impaired individuals (through neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss) with the ability to communicate, interact and function through thought. The research so far looks very promising.
People using the BrainGate system have a tiny computer chip implanted on the surface of their brains. This chip enables their brains to use a computer as a gateway to self-directed activities that go beyond typical computer functions and include the control of objects in the environment, such as a phone, a TV and room lights. BrainGate technology’s cursor-control accuracy is twice that of previous prosthetic systems and approaches the performance of a real arm. Better yet, the new system is still going strong after four years, while previous systems steadily decline in performance over time.
While researchers are currently focused on providing motor-impaired people with reliable and constant control over their environment, they hope the technology may ultimately provide people with paralysis easy control over assistive movement and communication devices, and eventually enable naturally-controlled movements of prosthetic limbs and paralyzed limbs.
The research team at BrainGate is currently recruiting participants for their ongoing clinical trials. Participants must live within 3 hours of Boston, MA, or Palo Alto, CA, and agree to a commitment of 13 months. More information on clinical trial participation can be found here.
If you want to dig more into the nuts and bolts of BrainGate’s research and their technology, here are a few helpful links: