Scientists pioneer mind-controlled robotic arm (video)

17 Dec 2012

Jan Scheuermann, who has quadriplegia, brings a chocolate bar to her mouth using a robot arm she is guiding with her thoughts. Photo credit: UPMC

A woman paralysed from the neck down has been able to grasp and move objects as well as feed herself chocolate using her thoughts to guide a robotic arm as a result of new brain-computer interface (BCI) technology pioneered by US researchers.

The scientists who hail from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC have published the results of their study in The Lancet journal.

For the past 13 years, 53-year-old Jan Scheuermann has been paralysed from the neck down as a result of a progressive, degenerative disease called spinocerebellar degeneration, leaving her unable to move her arms or legs.

Last February, the scientists implanted two electrode grids with 96 tiny contact points into Scheuermann’s motor cortex. The needles on each of the two sensors were able to pick up electrical activity from individual brain cells.

Within a week, Scheuermann could reach in and out, left and right, and up and down with the robotic arm. She was also able to give high-fives with the researchers.

And within three months, she could also flex the robotic wrist back and forth, move it side to side and rotate it clockwise and counter-clockwise, as well as grip objects.

“This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms,” said Prof Andrew Schwartz from the Department of Neurobiology at Pittsburgh School of Medicine and one of the senior researchers on the study.

“This technology, which interprets brain signals to guide a robot arm, has enormous potential that we are continuing to explore,” he said.

Dr Michael Boninger, who is director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, said that as a result of the dedication and hard work of the trial participants the researchers are learning more about how the brain controls motor activity.

“Perhaps in five to 10 years, we will have a device that can be used in the day-to-day lives of people who are not able to use their own arms,” he said.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic