Friday, 18 May 2012

The mind-robot connection

I admit it, I cry sometimes when I watch movies. But this is the first time a movie in the supplemental figures of a paper has brought tears to my eyes. This video shows a tetraplegic woman using a robotic arm controlled by an implant in her brain to lift her coffee and take a sip for the first time in 15 years. The smile on her face at the end is amazing.
It's an outstanding medical achievement, too. The researchers implanted microelectrodes in the motor cortex of two patients rendered tetraplegic and anarthric (could not speak) as a result of a brainstem stroke. They then asked the patients to imagine moving objects, and looked to see which motor cortex cells were activated. This information was used in the next trial, where the patients controlled a robotic arm with their minds and used it to grasp balls in 3-dimensional space. That was an immense achievement, and is the focus of the paper. But what really got me was the idea of giving this woman, who has been unable to physically control her environment for 15 years, a touch of independence. What an accomplishment for the researchers and their subject alike.

For those of you without Nature subscriptions, you can watch a shortened version of it here: