Jan Scheuermann, a 36-year-old mom of two, was diagnosed with spinocerebellar degeneration after slowing losing the ability to move her limbs. Now, more than a decade after becoming a quadriplegic, Ms. Scheuermann was able to feed herself a piece of chocolate via a robotic arm that she controlled with her mind. In doing so, she proclaimed, “One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for [brain-computer interface technology].”
In addition to feeding herself, Ms. Scheuermann was also able to pick up and move various objects. In doing so, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC were able to show the first instance of someone who has had quadriplegia for an extended period of time controlling the robotic arm in seven dimensions.
The Department of Neurobiology’s senior investigator at Pitt School of Medicine Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D, offered this statement. “This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms. This technology, which interprets brain signals to guide a robot arm, has enormous potential that we are continuing to explore. 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.”
This came about after Scheuermann was shown a video of a Pennsylvanian man with quadriplegia controlling a robotic arm and digital objects on a screen with his mind. The video called for volunteers, for which Scheuermann was more than happy to oblige. After going through the formalities, she underwent a surgery that put two 1/4th-inch electrodes on her brain that allow her to control the robot. The electrodes work by detecting firing neurons and interpreting patterns using computer algorithms.
Said Jennifer Collinger, Ph. D: “We could actually see the neurons fire on the computer screen when she thought about closing her hand. When she stopped, they stopped firing. So we thought, ‘This is really going to work.”