For the first time in nearly 15 years, Cathy Hutchinson is picking up a cup and taking a sip without anyone's help. The stroke victim is once again able to perform tasks like this thanks to a revolutionary robotic arm that responds to her thoughts.
"We have to connect on their head a little wire that goes out to a computer and the computer does all the work of translating thoughts to actions," explained Dr. John Donoghue, the director of brain science at Brown University.
Researchers implanted a tiny electrode in the part of Hutchinson's brain that controls arm movement. At first, the computer was only able to interpret the most basic brainwaves, but researchers soon decoded more complex impulses.
"We could actually extract information not only about up and down and left and right and open and closed your hand, but actually move it around any place," Donoghue said.
The Braingate technology is in early clinical trials. Researchers say the ultimate goal is a device that would help a paralyzed person control their own body.
"To route those signals back down toward the spinal cord to the peripheral nerves to allow that person to reach out with their own limb and pick up that coffee cup," said Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the lead investigator.
Still, Hutchinson's accomplishment is a big thrill to her doctors.
"To watch her reach out and pick that up and to see the smile on her face as soon as she did that and was a magical moment for all of us," Hochberg said.
Some experts say wide use of robotic arms could be just five years away, but reactivating paralyzed limbs could take decades.
The technology faces a number of hurdles to widespread use, like reducing its high cost and making it more reliable.