Jan Scheuermann has been paralyzed from the neck down for years -- but thanks to a cutting-edge robotic arm, she can move and lift things with impressive dexterity.
In a new study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neural Engineering, University of Pittsburgh scientists describe their success in giving Scheuermann unprecedented control over a robotic arm.
Scheuermann has tiny sensors embedded in the part of her brain that controls movement (surgically implanted when she first volunteered in 2012). These sensors read the electrical pulses from her brain cells. Then a computer can translate these electrical signals into the commands they represent -- an instruction from the brain to the arm to move this way, that way, and the other in order to pick up an object and move it.
Just weeks after her initial surgery, she was able to move the arm back, forth, and sideways. Then she learned to turn her wrist. Finally, as this new study reports, she learned how to position the fingers of the hand into different configurations, allowing her to pick up and put down objects of different sizes and shapes.
To accomplish this, the team's computer algorithm needed to learn to interpret Scheuermann's thoughts. She would watch videos of the desired motion and imagine moving her own arm and hand in the same way. By recording her brain activity during the process, the arm's creators were able to teach a computer to take Scheuermann's commands.
She isn't the only patient using this kind of tech (you can see a video of another patient using a mind-controlled arm here), but her arm may be the most advanced of its kind. What's impressive here is that Scheuermann is able to lift and move objects of varying size and irregular shape. Even in robotic prosthetics connected to the body of the user, picking up an object without totally crushing it is no small feat. It takes a lot of coordination for your brain to tell your hand just how much it needs to close in order to grasp an object.
Scheuermann, who's now 55, had the electrodes removed a few months ago. The robotic arm she used was incredibly useful for study -- and may increase mobility for similar patients in the future -- but it wasn't something she could use outside of the lab.
"This is been a fantastic, thrilling, wild ride, and I am so glad I've done this," she said in a statement. "This study has enriched my life, given me new friends and coworkers, helped me contribute to research and taken my breath away. For the rest of my life, I will thank God every day for getting to be part of this team."