A quadriplegic man named Robert Chmielewski was recently able to feed himself by manipulating a pair of advanced prosthetic arms using signals from his brain. Researchers say the accomplishment marks a step towards restoring function and independence for those impacted by illness or injury, resulting in partial or total loss of the use of all four limbs and torso. To control the prosthetics, the man had undergone a ten-hour brain surgery two years ago.
The brain surgery was part of a clinical trial performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and was originally spearheaded by DARPA. During the surgery, six electrode arrays were implanted into both sides of the man’s brain. Within months, he demonstrated simultaneous control of a pair of prostatic limbs using a brain-machine interface.
The team aims to develop a closed-loop system that merges artificial intelligence, robotics, and brain-machine interface. In the most recent instance, Chmielewski used the interface to cut a Twinkie with a fork and knife and feed it to himself. Researchers say the ultimate goal is to make activities like eating easy to accomplish with the robot doing one part of the work, leaving the rest of the user.
Chmielewski used the robotic arms to do the work of cutting and moving the food, but he chose where to cut and how big the cut piece should be. The next step in the research is to expand the number and type of activities of daily living the man can use the robotic arms to perform. Researchers also want to provide the user with additional sensory feedback as tasks are completed, so he doesn’t have to rely on vision to know if he’s succeeding in the task.
Most of us take something as basic as eating for granted. Chmielewski says to be able to do it independently and interact with family is a game-changer. Many people with injuries that leave them unable to perform the basic functions of daily living are looking to regain any independence possible.