Quadriplegic woman uses mind-controlled robotic arm to eat chocolate


According to a new study, with the help of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, a woman suffering from quadriplegia has learned to control a human-like robotic arm with her mind.

The researchers used Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology to accomplish this feat, which allowed Jan Scheuermann, a 53-year-old woman from Pittsburgh's Borough of Whitehall to move the arm, flex the fingers of its hand, and pick up and manipulate objects with it.

"This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms," said Andrew B. Schwartz, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's Department of Neurobiology, according to Science Daily. "This technology, which interprets brain signals to guide a robot arm, has enormous potential that we are continuing to explore. Our study has shown us that it is technically feasible to restore ability; the participants have told us that BCI gives them hope for the future."

Ms. Scheuermann was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA) in 1998. SCA is a group of degenerative genetic diseases that cause the deterioration of muscle control throughout the body. Since her diagnosis, the loss of connection between her brain and muscles has reached the point where Ms. Scheuermann is confined to a wheelchair, and requires the help of an assistant for even the most basic of activities, such as feeding and dressing herself.

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"Now I can't move my arms and legs at all. I can't even shrug my shoulders," she said. "But I have come to the conclusion that worrying about something is experiencing it twice. I try to dwell on the good things that I have."

She contacted the research team after seeing a video of a man, Tim Hemmes, who has a spinal chord injury, using BCI technology to move the mouse cursor on a computer desktop, and manipulate a robotic arm, only by using his thoughts. After going through a screening process to be sure she could participate in the study, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center neurosurgeon Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara implanted two electrode grids into the regions of Ms. Scheuermann's brain that would control her right arm and hand.

Two days later, the electrodes were hooked up to a computer which recorded the signals from Ms. Scheuermann's brain, and related them to the actions of moving the arm, hand and fingers.

"We could actually see the neurons fire on the computer screen when she thought about closing her hand," said Dr. Jennifer Collinger, who led the research. "When she stopped, they stopped firing. So we thought, 'This is really going to work.'"

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The robotic arm that was used in the study was the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), built by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab, which is capable of the full range of movement of a human arm. Ms. Scheuermann used her MPL, which she nicknamed 'Hector', to pick up and manipulate objects, high-five members of the research team, and feed herself chunks of dark chocolate — something she promised both the team and herself that she would do before the research was over.

"One small nibble for a woman," she said as she fulfilled that promise to the applause of the research team, "one giant bite for BCI."