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Meet the paralysed woman who commandeered a robotic arm

Cathy Hutchinson has been trapped in her frozen body for 14 years, after a stroke disconnected her brain from her spinal column. Recently, however, she commanded a robot arm to bring a thermos of coffee to her lips. This story has been all over the news, but for the ultimate telling of the tale, you need to read Jessica Benko’s amazing story over at The Atavist.

I reviewed it for Download the Universe – a review site for science e-books, where a bunch of us writer types are having tremendous fun writing about writing for the sheer joy of it. A sample of the review follows to whet your appetite. Go buy the e-book. You can thank me later. And do read the review too.

Throughout the history of neuroscience, we have gained an inordinate amount of knowledge by studying people with severe brain damage, and watching how they manage to live. HM’s surgically altered brain revealed secrets about how memories are formed – after his death, he was revealed to be an American man called Henry Molaison. KC, a Canadian man whose real name is still unknown, also taught us much about how memory works, following brain damage sustained during a motorcycle accident. SM, a woman with an inherited brain disease, reportedly feels no fear.

These patients are known by abbreviations that preserve their anonymity, but also shroud their contributions. Their hopes, struggles and lives are condensed into patterns of injury and aberrant behaviours, and distilled into pairs of letters. But sometimes, very rarely, we get a privileged opportunity – a chance to unpack the people behind the letters, and to learn not just how they became a part of science, but how science became a part of them.

Jessica Benko’s new story, The Electric Mind, provides just such an insight. [It is] the story of Cathy Hutchinson, a woman known in the scientific literature as S3. She’s a mother-of-two who was “always goofing around and singing and dancing”, until a stroke disconnected her brain from her spinal column and left her with an active mind imprisoned in a frozen frame.

For several years, Cathy has been taking part in a groundbreaking experiment called BrainGate – not a sordid cerebral scandal, but a bold project that aims to give paralysed people control over mechanical limbs. The scientists behind the project fitted Cathy with microscopic electrodes that read the neural buzz within her motor cortex – the area of her brain that controls movements. The implant acts like an electronic spine that links Cathy’s brain to a computer or robot, bypassing her own immobilised flesh.

At first, she used the electrodes to control the movements of an on-screen cursor. More recently, she commandeered a robotic arm. As she thought about grabbing a bottle, the electrodes deciphered her mental commands and the arm carried them out. “For the first time in 14 years—indeed, for the first time for any quadriplegic—Cathy was able to reach out into the world.”

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