A few years ago John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, met Cathy Hutchinson, a young woman who was suffering from locked-in syndrome following a stroke. Until recently, this would have condemned her to a life of helplessness and hopelessness: locked-in syndrome means that somebody cannot move their limbs, even if their brains are functioning normally (as Jean-Dominique Bauby described so movingly in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
But Hutchinson had a dream: she longed to drink a cup of coffee on her own, in one vestige of normality. And Donoghue was convinced he could help. Over the past few years, he has run a project called Braingate that combines the latest advances in computing science, engineering and mathematics with neuroscience, to map the connections inside the brain – and replicate them on a computer.
More specifically, this project uses the impulses that our brains send whenever the body makes a movement – or even just thinks about a movement – to activate a robot, via a computer.