For the first time in almost 15 years, stroke victim Cathy Hutchinson has sipped her morning coffee without help from a carer. The precious moment came about thanks to a robotic arm that she controls with her own thoughts.
Miss Hutchinson, 59, was able to direct the mechanised arm, on a stand at her side, to pick up the flask of coffee, bring it close to her mouth and tilt it to her lips. She then sipped it through a straw – and smiled with delight.
Those behind the breakthrough, which could help restore independence to the paralysed and to amputees, said it was a moment of ‘true joy’.
Dr Leigh Hochberg, an engineer and neurologist at Brown University and Harvard Medical School in the US, said: 'The smile on her face was something that I and my research team will never forget.'
Miss Hutchinson, who lives in a nursing home near Boston, Massachusetts, was one of two patients to have an electronic chip implanted in her brain.
The second, a man in his 60s, had also been left paralysed by a stroke. Both had a BrainGate chip – a grid of electrodes the size of a baby aspirin – placed in the part of the brain which controls movement.
When the patients think about moving their arm, the signals in the brain are picked up by the electrodes and transmitted to a computer system through a cable 'plugged' into the top of the patient’s head.
The computer then decodes the signals and sends the information to a stand-alone robotic arm.
The robotic arm then makes the movement that the patient had imagined. The male volunteer, identified only as Bob, said: 'I just imagined moving my own arm and the (robotic) arm moved where I wanted it to go.'
The achievement, detailed in the journal Nature, marks the culmination of decades of research into how the arms are controlled by the brain. In the latest experiments, Miss Hutchinson and the man used mind-controlled robotic arms to reach for and grasp foam ping-pong balls.
Although slow and far from perfect, they achieved the task more often than could be explained by chance alone.
Miss Hutchinson then proved the apparatus to have a practical benefit by using the mind-controlled robotic arm to lift her coffee to her mouth four of the six times she tried it.
The researchers, who are funded by various bodies including the US military, the government's health research arm and the German Aerospace Centre, believe it should be possible to design an arm which allows the paralysed to perform more fiddly tasks, such as brushing their teeth.
Other goals are to create a cable-free set-up which operates wirelessly and to use the technology to power prosthetic arms.
The real dream is to harness the power of the mind to allow the paralysed to move their own limbs again.
Kevin Warwick, a Reading University expert in robotics who ten years ago had a BrainGate chip implanted in his arm to help develop the technology, said thought control need not be limited to arm movements.
Signals harnessed by brain chips could have a multitude of uses, said the professor. 'Brain signals could be used to switch on lights, open doors – someone could drive their wheelchair around or even their car. These are the sorts of things that will be possible in the next few years.'