Jan Scheuermann was diagnosed with spinocerebellar degeneration in 1998. Her long history of quadriplegia gives hope to many, as she was the first person to demonstrate that those with long-term paralysis can operate a mind-controlled robotic arm.
The brain computer interface, or BCI, requires the implantation of two quarter-inch electrode grids. These grids are connected to 96 contact points for brain areas that control the movement of the right arm and hand. The electrodes pick up the signal of neurons firing and translate this information to movement.
“This technology, which interprets brain signals to guide a robot arm, has enormous potential that we are continuing to explore,” explained Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “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.”
Just a week after the implants were put in place, Jan was able to move the robotic arm left and right, up and down, and could reach in and out. Less than a year after the surgery, she can reach out, grab a chocolate bar, and bring it to her mouth to take a bite. After 9 years of being unable to feed herself, this is an important feat for Jan.
“One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI,” she said.
Jan’s fast progress with the robotic arm has led researchers to estimate that more robots could be available to patients in the next five to ten years. The team will be working towards developing feedback potential in the electrodes, with the hope that patients can control grip strength.
“This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms,” said Schwartz.
“This is the ride of my life,” she was quoted as saying. “This is the roller coaster. This is skydiving. It’s just fabulous, and I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Jan will continue to test the device through the early part of 2013. The full report on the results of the study can be found in the medical journal The Lancet.