Paralyzed woman uses robotic arm controlled by her thoughts to feed herself


Jan Scheuermann, who has quadriplegia, brings a chocolate bar to her mouth using a robot arm she is guiding with her thoughts. Research assistant Elke Brown, M.D., watches in the background. (UPMC)
December 31, 2012
Woman’s thoughts control robotic arm

A paralyzed woman has been able to feed herself chocolate and move everyday items using a robotic arm directly controlled by thought, showing a level of agility and control approaching that of a human limb.

Jan Scheuermann, 53, of Pittsburgh, was found to have a degenerative brain disorder 13 years ago and is paralyzed from the neck down.

“It’s so cool,” she said during a news conference. “I’m moving things. I have not moved things for about 10 years.”

She was seen feeding herself string cheese and chocolate unaided as well as moving a series of objects in tests designed for recovering stroke victims, and she was able to do it with speeds comparable to the able-bodied.

Experts are calling it a remarkable step forward for prosthetics controlled directly by the brain. Other systems have allowed paralyzed patients to type or write in freehand simply by thinking about the letters they want.

The research team from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center implanted two microelectrode devices into the woman’s left motor cortex, the part of the brain that initiates movement.

They used a real-time brain-scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to find the exact part of the brain that lit up after Scheuermann was asked to think about moving her now unresponsive arms.

The electrodes were connected to the robotic hand via a computer running a complex algorithm to translate the signals that mimics the way an unimpaired brain controls healthy limbs.

“These electrodes are remarkable devices in that they are very small,” said Michael Boninger, who worked on a study about the case that was published in the Lancet. “You can’t buy them in Radio Shack.”

But Boninger said the way the algorithm operates is the main advance. Accurately translating brain signals has been one of the biggest challenges in mind-controlled prosthetics.

“There is no limit now to decoding human motion,” he said. “It gets more complex when you work on parts like the hand, but I think that, once you can tap into desired motion in the brain, then how that motion is effected has a wide range of possibilities.”

Reuters

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