More than 700,000 people in the United States have a stroke every year. A leading cause of disability, a stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is disrupted, either by a clot or a burst blood vessel in the brain.
A common resulting disability from a stroke is paralysis, particularly on the side of the body opposite whichever side of the brain endured stroke-related damage.
Melody Moore Jackson, director of the BrainLab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is working on solutions for patients who can't move parts of their body anymore. Her goal is to create systems that enable people to use artificial limbs just by thinking.
Her research group is working on developing an exoskeleton, a robotic structure that moves when a person's brain tells it to move.
The scientists have so far focused on the arm. A patient puts his or her arm inside the robotic arm, which responds to the person's brain signals. So when the patients thinks about moving it to reach a target, and the arm follows the command.
"With this experiment we also learned that we can make neuroplastic change -- we can change the brain signals that control the arm," she said.
The early results are promising, she said.
"I am quite confident that we will make some new therapies available to people who are paralyzed," she said.
This same brain-computer interface concept could be used in prosthetic limbs for amputees, particularly wounded veterans, she said. Her research group is interested in helping this patient population as well.
Other research groups are looking into restoring feeling in paralyzed body parts. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University Center for Neuroengineering and colleagues showed in 2011 that a monkey could move a virtual arm and feel different textures with it. This involved implanting electrodes into the monkey's brain.
The ultimate goal of this line of research is to create a full-body suit that's totally controlled by the brain of the person who's wearing it, Nicolelis told CNN in 2011. The ideal robotic suit would also be able to give the wearer tactile feedback -- in other words, feel different textures, temperatures, and other sensations through the robot-enhanced limbs.
Beyond using these brain-computer interface technologies for disabilities, Jackson and colleagues are thinking about more "mainstream" applications for them, such as enhancing athletic performance.
"Any time that you put something in the mainstream, it gets easier for people with disabilities to get as well," she said.