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NPR falls into the anecdotal trap with story on robotic arm for paralyzed man


3 Star


Brain Implant Restores Sense Of Touch To Paralyzed Man

Our Review Summary

robotic arm for paralyzed man

President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Researchers published results of an experiment that allowed a single paralyzed patient to “feel” in a limited way through a robotic arm, via the addition of electrodes implanted in his brain.

It is an fascinating technology, and one that many people will read about. But, this is a story about a case study involving one man and an experimental device. Such an anecdote needs lots of backstopping, since many patients may never benefit from the incremental experiment being reported. We’ve seen this sort of story before – as here from BuzzFeed.

What’s missing in this story is more detailed caveats on how preliminary this technology is, and how there are many, many unknowns with this kind of research.


Why This Matters

A single patient had limited success at feeling objects due to brain implants combined with a robotic arm. Many millions of people live with amputations or paralysis, and for those readers, this story skimps on some key points.

For reference, the AP did a better job of giving context and quoting someone apart from the authors of the journal article about the limitations of this research–and included the illuminating detail that the patient doesn’t get to keep the arm; he’s back to how he was before the experiment began. Also, this older story from NOVA on prostheses for amputees did a great job on discussing uncertainties of “state-of-the-art” devices.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


The story states: “At the moment, they [robotic arms with touch sensitivity] are still too expensive, too bulky and too finicky to be used outside a laboratory setting.”

While the story could have helped provide more context by explaining the cost of the experimental surgery on the patient–even without speculating on the cost of the robotic arm itself–this is enough to merit a satisfactory rating.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story doesn’t overstate the benefits to this one patient. It explains that the benefits seen here–the sense of “touch” provided to this paralyzed individual through a brain-computer interface–does not replicate what most of us might think of as a complete sense of touch. For example, one quote says “we’re really not at the point where we could, say, get him to feel the difference between silk and burlap.” We did feel the headline strays over the line a bit, by claiming “implant restores sense of touch.”

What is needed here is more qualification that this is just one patient, and given the variability in spinal cord injuries, it’s really unknown how this will play out for other people. We also took issue with the ending quote of the story that states we’re “on the verge of something here that’s going to transform lives.” This needs to be hedged with the reality of the slow pace of the scientific and medical research process.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not describe any harms that may lurk in future applications of surgical implants to communicate with a potential robotic arm. The most obvious way to approach this would be to talk about risks of neurosurgery generally; accidental destruction of healthy tissue, for example, or stroke. But there may be others related to the technology–essentially there are a lot of unknowns when the patient test group is one individual.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story does make clear this is a laboratory result for a single man. But: How exactly did researchers measure what was gained by the patient? What are the limitations? And, as we explained in the benefits criterion, the story could have done a better job stressing how preliminary these findings are, perhaps by more thoroughly explaining the future steps this kind of research requires before it’s a mass-market device, and how similar technologies created similar excitement early on but never came to pass. Bottom line: It was a case study, not a controlled trial, and the multiple limitations inherent in a case study needed more mention.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There was no disease mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story did not quote anyone outside the Pittsburgh team that collaborated on this project.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not give readers any sense of what else is out there for an amputee, including other prosthetics such as one from 2014 that provides “sensory” info without need of a brain implant. (The electrodes are implanted in the patient’s arm.)

It also does not provide context that many people with upper limb amputations choose to use less-high-tech prosthetics because these last longer and are more durable or because they cost less.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story makes clear this patient is the first to receive this treatment in an experimental setting, so it is clear that this is not available except in a laboratory.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The novelty is well-established by the story’s explanation of the experimental therapy.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story contains quotes that were not in the original news release.


Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory


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