Prosthetic arm controlled by brain waves allows quadriplegic woman to feed herself (video)

A woman who has been a quadriplegic for nine years after developing a degenerative neurological disease was able to give herself a piece of chocolate using a robot arm controlled by her brain waves. The prosthetic arm, which uses brain interface technology, is under development by a team of research scientists at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Medical Center and could improve the quality of life for quadriplegics.

The scientists’ study, published on the website of British medical journal The Lancet, discusses the ability of the prosthetic brain interface technology to interpret brain signals. The woman at the center of the study, 53-year-old Jan Scheuerman suffers from spinocerebellar degeneration, in which the connections between the brain and muscles slowly and inexplicably deteriorate, according to a statement from the university. She was implanted with two 96-channel intracortical microelectrodes in the portion of the motor cortex section of the brain that controls movement for the right arm and hand. The clinicians used imaging technology to help guide the placement of the microelectrodes. Using the robot arm, she moved and guided her arm, turned and bent a wrist, and closed a hand for the first time in nine years.

Here’s how it works: The electrode points pick up signals from individual neurons and computer algorithms are used to identify the firing patterns associated with particular observed or imagined movements. The robot arm, developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, interprets that intent into actual movement.

The 13-week study showed that Scheuerman’s training with the robot arm allowed her to gradually improve her coordination. The study will evaluate her progress with the prosthetic for another two months before the electrode implants are removed.


Dr. Michael Boninger, the director of UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, said, “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.”

The study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Institutes of Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, and UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

Senior investigator Andrew B. Schwartz, a professor in the medical school’s neurobiology department, believes the technology has enormous potential. “Our study has shown us that it is technically feasible to restore ability,” according to the statement.

The next phase will focus on more subtle mechanics and use a two-way electrode system to stimulate the brain to generate sensation such as adjusting the grip to more firmly grasp a doorknob or hold an egg.

One goal, said lead investigator Jennifer Collinger, an assistant professor with the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, would be to develop the device to be a fully implanted wireless system that people could use in their homes without supervision.

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