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May. 18, 2012

A Momentous Sip

by Leslie Taylor

Click to enlarge images
Most of us take for granted the simple act of taking a sip of our morning coffee. But Cathy Hutchinson had been unable to raise a beverage to her mouth without human assistance for more than 15 years, since a stroke left her unable to move her arms and legs. Now, as reported in Nature, researchers have given Cathy the ability to use her thoughts to reach for her morning coffee on her own by means of a thought-controlled robotic arm.
 
The slideshow above and the infographic below explain how the process works.
 
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In a piece for The Atavist, Jessica Benko tells Cathy's story. Years ago, Cathy suffered a brain-stem stroke that led to her loss of limb function. Benko explains:
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A brain-stem stroke is the sort of medical event that can result in death immediately or soon thereafter. But in Cathy, who was young and in otherwise good health, the stroke disconnected her brain from the descending motor tracts of her brain stem—the neural pathways carrying instructions to her muscles—leaving her “locked in,” not only quadriplegic but also unable to speak. The ascending tracts, which carry sensory information from body to brain, remained intact, allowing her the experience of pain, itch, heat, and cold but not the possibility of addressing them. She had a sensate, lucid mind incapable of action.

 

Below is an audio clip from the author's interview with Cathy. In the clip, she communicates through her daughter Holly, who holds up an alphabet board that Cathy uses to spell out words.

The complete multi-media story, The Electric Mind: One Woman's Battle Against Paralysis at the Frontiers of Science, is available at The Atavist.
 
Lead investigator Dr. Leigh Hochberg was on Science Friday this afternoon talking about this research. You can hear the interview below.

About Leslie Taylor

Leslie is the online editor at Workboat.com and NationalFisherman.com. She has a background in oceanography and is passionate about getting non-scientists and young people to realize how cool science can be. She is also Science Friday's former web editor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Science Friday® and SciFri® are registered service marks of Science Friday, Inc. Site design by Pentagram; engineering by Mediapolis.

 

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