New system allows paralyzed woman to control robotic arm with her mind

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POSTED: Sunday, May 20, 2012 - 12:30pm

UPDATED: Sunday, May 20, 2012 - 12:34pm

A medical breakthrough is giving a Massachusetts woman a helping hand, and drawing international attention.

A paralyzed Taunton woman is now using her thoughts to direct a robotic arm to bring a thermos to her lips.

"I felt a great accomplishment was made and I was thrilled to be a part of it," Cathy Hutchinson said.

"It's exciting for us. Seeing the smile on her face when she was able to bring that thermos of coffee up and to take that first sip -- it's something that all of us on the research team will never forget," said Dr. Leigh Hochberg, critical care neurologist.

Dr. Hochberg helps lead a team of 20 researchers from Brown, Mass General, and the Providence V.A.

They're finding ways computers can help disabled people live more independently. Hutchinson was the first woman to participate in the study.

15 years ago Hutchinson suffered a devastating stroke that left her paralyzed. She can't move and can't speak, but is able to communicate through a computer.

"I have learned never give up. Leigh Hochburg will find cure," Hutchinson said.

For over five years, beginning in 2005, a device was attached to Cathy's brain -- a key component; a tiny chip about the size of a baby aspirin.

"That array of electrodes conducts the electrical impulses from the brain out to a little plug that sticks up above the skin, we then connect that plug through a cable to some computers," said Dr. Hochberg.

The computers decode the information and then tell the robotic arm what to do.

"There was no pain and I encourage others to participate in a future trial," Hutchinson said.

The technology is very expensive, and right now it doesn't always work, but it's promising, and the research continues.

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