Paralyzed individuals use thoughts to control robotic arms

A story on a research involving paralyzed individuals using brain signals to control robotic arms received extensive coverage in print and online sources, in addition to a three-minute segment on a national network news broadcast.

Many sources portrayed the study as a breakthrough, but pointed out that it may take time before the technology can be used outside of a laboratory setting.

The CBS Evening News reported, “Today researchers are reporting that a woman who is completely paralyzed has used a robotic arm controlled with nothing but her thoughts.”

According to the New York Times reports, “The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the first published demonstration that humans with severe brain injuries can effectively control a prosthetic arm, using tiny brain implants that transmit neural signals to a computer.”

While “the technology is not yet ready for use outside the lab, experts said … the new study is an important step forward, providing dramatic evidence that brain-controlled prosthetics are within reach.”

The Los Angeles Times “Science Now” blog reports, “The two patients involved in the study had suffered strokes that limited their movements to facial muscles and talking. The 58-year-old woman had her stroke 15 years ago, while a 66-year-old man had his only three years ago.”

USA Today reports, “The brain implants, about the size of a baby aspirin, have 100 thin wires that slightly protrude into the covering of the patients’ brains, centered over the regions connected to arm movements.”

In a front-page story, the Boston Globe reports, “The new work built on previous accomplishments by the same team of researchers, which demonstrated in 2006 that the device, implanted in the brain of a research subject, could be used to move a cursor around on a screen, open e-mail, and operate a television.” Meanwhile, “other research groups are also working on technology to bridge the devastating gap that can occur when paralysis or disease leaves people’s minds intact but their bodies unresponsive.”

The AP reports, “The ultimate goal, researchers said, is an implanted device that would reactivate a person’s own paralyzed limbs. Another goal is to operate high-tech prostheses for amputees.”

The Washington Post reports, “The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs funded much of the work.”

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