The Holiday season is a time for miracles. We often take little simple tasks like walking, grasping, and eating for granted, as ultimately living a healthy life is a miracle. Allow me to introduce you to Jan Scheuermann, 55, mother of two and a successful entrepreneur that was diagnosed with spinocerebellar degeneration in 1998. As a result, Jan became a quadriplegic loosing all ability to use her limbs. Jan recently completed a study at the University of Pittsburgh to regain her independence through a robotic arm, she calls Hector, controlled by 96 sensors in her brain (see video).
Hector or the University of Pittsburgh’s robotic hand connects to the brain using electrodes that enables the wearer to control with their thoughts. The original model in 2012 could grasp and even do a high-five, but new 10D model now can work almost like real digits with abducting fingers (top left and right), scooping, pinching (bottom left) and extending the thumb (bottom right).
Jan signed up to the University of Pittsburgh’s study in 2012, and was fitted with two quarter-inch electrode grids. Each electrode has 96 contact points covering regions of her brain that are responsible for right arm and hand movements. After the electrode grids in Ms Scheuermann’s brain were connected to a computer, creating a brain-machine interface (BMI), the contact points picked up pulses of electricity that were fired between the neurons.
Computer algorithms were used to decode brain signals and identify the patterns associated with a particular arm movement. The researchers then used a virtual reality computer program to calibrate Ms Scheuermann’s control over the robotic arm Following this training, Ms Scheuermann was able to make the robotic arm reach for objects, as well as move in a number of directions, and flex and rotate the wrist, simply by thinking the movements. It also enabled her to give the researchers a high-five and even feed herself a chocolate bar (which is a major feat!).
The new and improved Hector offers a range of motions that enables Jan to pick up, grasp and move more objects, more precisely than before. It is hoped the results of Jan’s study, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering, can build on previous demonstrations and eventually allow robotic arms to restore natural arm and hand movements in people with upper limb paralysis.
Co-author of the study Dr Jennifer Collinger said, “10D control allowed Jan to interact with objects in different ways, just as people use their hands to pick up objects depending on their shapes and what they intend to do with them. We hope to repeat this level of control with additional participants and to make the system more robust, so that people who might benefit from it will one day be able to use brain-machine interfaces in daily life. We also plan to study whether the incorporation of sensory feedback, such as the touch and feel of an object, can improve neuroprosthetic control.”
Jan Scheuermann added, “This has been a fantastic, thrilling, wild ride, and I am so glad I’ve done this. This study has enriched my life, given me new friends and co-workers, helped me contribute to research and taken my breath away. For the rest of my life, I will thank God every day for getting to be part of this team.”