Dec. 17 - A Pennsylvania woman who became a quadraplegic through a genetic disease has fed herself for the first time in nearly ten years, using a mind-controlled robotic arm. A research team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine developed the device, an arm that can move in seven dimensions and perform many of the natural motions of a real arm in everyday life. Sharon Reich reports.
For 53-year-old Jan Scheuermann, chocolate never tasted so good. Using a robotic arm that is directly controlled by her thoughts, Scheuermann, who is paralyzed from the neck down, has been able to feed herself. SOUNDBITE: JAN SCHEUERMANN, PARALYZED PATIENT, SAYING: "I just can't stop smiling. It's just so cool. I'm moving things, I have not moved things for about 10 years." The robotic arm Scheurmann is maniplulating is called a brain computer interface (BCI). Using a computer algorithm the system accurately translates brain signals into actions - one of the biggest challenges in mind-controlled prosthetics. It was developed by Dr. Andrew Schwartz and a research team from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. SOUNDBITE: DR. ANDREW SCHWARTZ, NEUROLOGY PROFESSOR AT UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, SAYING: "We wanted to be able to capture that natural, those natural features of movement from brain activity. This led to the idea that we could make this prosthetic and make sure that the prosthetic obeyed the rules of natural movement. We had a device that let subjects express themselves and that was what I was after. It's really nice to see that happening." After successfully testing the device on monkeys, the scientists implanted two microelectrode devices into Scheurmann's left motor cortex, the part of the brain that initiates movement. The researchers used a real-time brain scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to find the exact part of the brain that lit up after the patient was asked to think about moving her now unresponsive arms. Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara oversaw the neurological procedure. SOUNDBITE: DR. ELIZABETH TYLER-KABARA, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF NEUROLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, SAYING: "The surgery went about as smoothly as I could have hoped. I held my breath until she was out of the hospital and at the rehab hospital … And we said ok, imagine wiggling your thumb. Of course we were expecting to hear fuzz and instead what we hear is the rush of the neurons coming and then activating again for each time she imagines wiggling her thumb." The electrodes are connected to the robotic hand via a computer. The system runs a complex algorithm that translates the signals that mimic the way an unimpaired brain controls healthy limbs. After weeks of training Scheuermann learned to master control of the hand. SOUNDBITE: JAN SCHEUERMANN, PARALYZED PATIENT, SAYING: "I used to have to think up, clockwise, down, forward, back … It's not a matter of thinking which direction anymore. It's just I want to do that and my brain knows which direction to move to make that happen." It's a remarkable step forward for prosthetics controlled directly by the brain says Dr. Mike Boninger. In the future it could even be paired with robotic exoskeletons that allow paralyzed individuals to walk. SOUNDBITE: DR. MICHAEL BONINGER, PROFESSOR AND CHAIR, UPMC REHABILITATION INSTITUTE, SAYING: "After completing a task in a time that is close to what I could complete that task in you think wow, we just have to take the next steps where we make this a clinical tool not a research one." In the meantime, Scheuermann is enjoying her new found freedom. She's tasting cheese, red peppers and truffles in a whole new way.