A 52 year old woman named Jan Scheuermann, a paraplegic for 13 years, University of Pennsylvania Medical College (UPMC) reports, is now able to feed herself courtesy of a robot arm that is controlled by her thoughts. Science Daily, reporting on the work by the team at UPMC says the test trial is evidence of a renaissance of sorts coming for the medical community – giving people with disabilities back their abilities.
Scheuermann lost the ability to use her arms and legs due to a genetic neurotic disease, in her late thirties. She told the staff at UPMC that she thought she would never have the ability to feed herself again as long as she lived. Turns, out, she was only partly right. She can feed herself now, just not using her own hand and arm.
Science Daily says that Scheuermann heard about the research going on at UPMC and had an assistant give them a call. When asked if she’d like to serve as a guinea pig for their new research, she responded enthusiastically.
To allow their patient to move a robotic arm with just her thoughts, the researchers took a two step process. First, they hooked her up to an fMRI machine that served to record what went on in her brain when she thought about moving her arm. That information was fed into a computer that translates the electrical signals in the brain, into commands a robot arm can understand. Once that was all set, the next step was to implant electrodes directly into Scheuermann’s brain – in the part that controls arm movement. As she thinks about moving her arm, the implants catch the brain wave activity and route it directly to a computer. The computer than translates those thoughts into commands for the arm, and it, as if by magic, moves.
The process has taken some time, the doctors report, there has been a learning curve, but that has been far shorter than they expected. They say they expected it would take several months to get the arm to move their patient wanted it, but instead, it took less than a week. That pace has continued, as now Scheuermann can now not only grab a candy bar and feed herself, she retrieve items from a special cabinet the researchers have set up for her and use them. For example, she can grab a mirror to see how she looks, a book to read, or a spoon to use for eating.
This is truly groundbreaking stuff the research team reports, and right now, they have no idea they say just how far their patient will be able to take what they have given her.