TUESDAY, April 30 (HealthDay News) -- It sounds like science
fiction, but researchers are gaining ground in developing
mind-controlled robotic arms that could give people with paralysis
or amputated limbs more independence.
The technology, known as brain-computer (or brain-machine)
interface, is in its infancy as far as human use -- though
scientists have been studying the concept for years. But experts
say that people with paralysis or amputations could be using the
technology at home within the next decade.
It basically boils down to people using their thoughts to
control a robot arm that then performs a desired task, like
grasping and moving a cup. That's done via tiny electrode "grids"
implanted in the brain that read the movement signals firing from
individual nerve cells, then translate them to the robot arm.
"We have the ability to capture information from the brain and use it to control the robotic arm," said Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, who presented her team's latest findings on the technology Tuesday, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, in New Orleans.
However, she stressed, "we still have a ton to learn."
Right now, the robot arm is confined to the lab. After getting
their electrodes implanted, study patients come to the lab to work
with the robotic limb under the researchers' supervision. So far,
Tyler-Kabara and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh
School of Medicine have tested the approach in one patient.
Researchers at Brown University in Providence, R.I., have done it
in a handful of others.
One of the big questions, Tyler-Kabara said, is "how much
control is enough?" That is, how well does the mind-controlled arm
need to work to bring real everyday benefits to people?
At the meeting on Tuesday, Tyler-Kabara presented an update on
how her team's patient is faring. The 53-year-old woman had
long-standing quadriplegia due to a disease called spinocerebellar
degeneration -- where, for unknown reasons, the connections between
the brain and muscles slowly deteriorate.
Tyler-Kabara performed the surgery, where two tiny electrode
grids were placed in the area of the brain that would normally
control the movement of the right hand and arm. The electrode
points penetrate the brain's surface by about one-sixteenth of an
"The idea is pretty scary," Tyler-Kabara acknowledged. But her team's patient had no complications from the surgery and left the hospital the next day. There've been no longer-term problems either, she said -- though, in theory, there would be concerns about infection or bleeding over the long haul.
The surgery left the patient with two terminals that protrude
through her skull. The researchers used those to connect the
implanted electrodes to a computer, where they could see brain
cells firing when the patient thought about moving her hand.
She was quickly able to master simple movements with the robotic
arm, like high-fiving the researchers. And after six months, she
was performing "10-degrees-of-freedom" movements, Tyler-Kabara
reported at the meeting.
That includes not only moving the arm, but also flexing and
rotating the wrist, grasping objects and affecting several
different hand "postures." She has accomplished feats like feeding
The researchers initially used a computer in training sessions
with the patient, but after that the robot arm is directly linked
to the electrodes -- so there is no need for "computer assistance,"
according to Tyler-Kabara.
Still, before the technology can ultimately be used at home, she
said, researchers have to devise a "fully implanted" wireless
system for controlling the robot arm.
Another expert talked about the new technology.
"This is one more encouraging step toward developing something practical that people can use in their daily lives," said Dr. Robert Grossman, a neurosurgeon at Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, who was not involved in the research.
It's hard to put a time line on it all, Grossman said, since
technological advances could changes things. He also noted that
several research groups are looking at different approaches to
One, Grossman said, is to do it noninvasively, through
electrodes placed on the scalp.
Study author Tyler-Kabara said that noninvasive approach has met
with success in helping people perform simple tasks, like moving a
cursor on a computer screen. "But I don't think it will ever be
good enough for performing complicated tasks," she said, noting
that it can't work as precisely as the implanted electrodes.
A next step, Tyler-Kabara said, is to develop a "two-way"
electrode system that stimulates the brain to generate sensation --
with the aim of helping people adjust the robot's grip
She said there is also much to learn about which people will
ultimately be good candidates for the technology. There may, for
example, be some brain injuries that prevent people from
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data
and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in
a peer-reviewed journal.
The research is being funded by the U.S. National Institutes of
Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of
The University of Pittsburgh has images of the
brain-computer interface at work.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Copyright © EBSCO Publishing. All rights reserved.