Video: Giant Medical Leap! Mind Controlled Robot Arm Functions As Fast As A Real Arm For Quadriplegic Woman

Credit: UPMC
Credit: UPMC

All she wanted was chocolate. Just the simple act of dropping some into her own mouth and savoring both the sweetness of the goodie and of an act of independence she hasn’t enjoyed for 10 Jan Scheuermann, 53, came South Hills. Upon seeing the success of Tim Hemmes in the previous round of the Brain Computer Interface project, Ms. Scheuermann contacted the Jan Scheuermann and a team of UPMC, accomplishing these seemingly ordinary tasks demonstrated for the first time that a person with longstanding quadriplegia can maneuver a mind-controlled, human-like robot arm in seven dimensions (7D) to consistently perform many of the natural and complex motions of everyday BCI) Jan Scheuermann, who has quadriplegia, brings a chocolate bar to her mouth using a robot arm she is guiding with her thoughts. Researcher Elke Brown, M.D., watches in the background.

Less than a year after she told the research team, “I’m going to feed myself chocolate before this is over,” Ms. Scheuermann savored its taste and announced as they applauded her feat, “One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI.”

“This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms,” agreed senior investigator Andrew B. Schwartz, Ph.D., professor, Department of Neurobiology, Pitt School of Medicine. “This BCI gives them hope for the future.”

In 1996, Ms. Scheuermann was a 36-year-old mother of two young children, running a successful business planning parties with murder-mystery themes and living in California when one day she noticed her legs seemed to drag behind her. Within two

A friend pointed out an October 2011 video about another Pitt/UPMC BCI research Tim Hemmes, a Butler, Pa., man who sustained a spinal cord injury that left him with quadriplegia, moved objects on a computer screen and ultimately reached out with a robot arm to touch his girlfriend.

“Wow, it’s so neat that he can do that,” Ms. Scheuermann thought as she watched him. “I wish I could do something like that.” She had her attendant call the trial coordinator immediately, and said, “I’m a quadriplegic. Hook me up, sign me up! I want to do that!”

On Feb. 10, 2012, after screening tests to confirm that she was eligible for the UPMC neurosurgeonElizabeth Tyler-Kabara, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Neurological Surgery, Pitt School of Medicine, placed two quarter-inch square electrode grids with 96 tiny contact points each in the regions of Ms. Scheuermann’s brain that would normally control right arm and hand movement.

“Prior to surgery, we conducted functional imaging tests of the brain to determine exactly where to put the two grids,” she said. “Then we used imaging Jennifer Collinger, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (Pittsburgh Healthcare System. That intent to move is then translated into actual movement of the robot arm, which was developed by Applied Physics Lab.

Two days after the operation, the team hooked up the two terminals that protrude from Ms. Scheuermann’s skull to the computer. “We could actually see the neurons fire on the computer screen when she thought about closing her hand,” Dr. Collinger said. “When she stopped, they stopped firing. So we thought, ‘This is really going to work.’”

Within a week, Ms. Scheuermann could reach in and out, left and right, and up and down with the arm, which she named Hector, giving her 3-dimensional control that had her high-fiving with the Action Research Arm Test, Ms. Scheuermann guided the arm from a position four inches above a table to pick up blocks and tubes of different sizes, a ball and a stone and put them down on a nearby tray. She also picked up cones from one base to restack them on another a foot away, another task requiring grasping, transporting and positioning of objects with precision.