Just think - and paralysed man can move arm

Using a brain interface system, Mr Kochevar, who was paralysed below his shoulders in a cycling accident eight years ago, is now able to move each joint in his right arm individually, just by thinking about it.
Using a brain interface system, Mr Kochevar, who was paralysed below his shoulders in a cycling accident eight years ago, is now able to move each joint in his right arm individually, just by thinking about it.PHOTO: REUTERS

CHICAGO • A paralysed man in the US state of Ohio fed himself mashed potatoes for the first time in eight years, aided by a computer- brain interface that reads his thoughts and sends signals to move muscles in his arm, researchers said this week.

The study, published in the journal Lancet, is the latest from BrainGate, a consortium of researchers testing brain-computer interface technology designed to give paralysed individuals more mobility.

Prior tests of the technology allowed paralysed people to move a robotic arm or a cursor on a keyboard just by using their thoughts.

The research team at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Centre used the brain-computer interface and an electrical stimulation system that allowed Mr Bill Kochevar, 56, to control his arm.

To achieve this, the researchers implanted two sensors, each about the size of a baby aspirin loaded with 96 electrodes designed to pick up nerve activity in the movement centres of his brain.

The sensors record brain signals created when Mr Kochevar imagines moving his arm, and relay them to a computer. The computer sends the signals to the electrical stimulation system, which then directs impulses through about 30 wires implanted in muscles in his arm and hand to produce specific movements.

Mr Kochevar, who was paralysed below his shoulders in a cycling accident eight years ago, first learnt to use the system to move a virtual reality arm on a computer screen.

He did that the first day he tried it, said Case Western's Dr Robert Kirsch, the study's senior author.

For the movement phase of the trial, Mr Kochevar had to go through 45 weeks of rehabilitation to restore muscle tone that had atrophied over the years of inactivity.

Using the brain interface system, he can now move each joint in his right arm individually, just by thinking about it.

To accomplish tasks like drinking through a straw, or scratching his face with a dry sponge, Mr Kochevar is aided by an arm support, a device he also controls with his thoughts.

He said the chance to do simple things for himself has been "better than I thought it would be".

For now, the system is experimental, but the study shows such a system is feasible, Dr Kirsch said.

BrainGate is funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline 'Just think - and paralysed man can move arm'. Print Edition | Subscribe