Brain chip helps paralyzed patient move robotic arm with thoughts

Jan Scheuermann, who has quadriplegia, brings a chocolate bar to her mouth using a robot arm she is guiding with her thoughts--courtesy of UPMC

Two sensors implanted in the brain of a patient who can't move her arms or legs gave her complex control of a robotic arm, allowing her to use her thoughts to make it pick up and move various objects.

Read details in the Lancet Medical Journal. CBS News, BBC News and many other media outlets are also highlighting the major achievement by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. The patient, Jan Scheuermann, is paralyzed from the neck down with spinocerebellar degeneration, and accomplished her achievement in the lab over a period of 14 weeks. What was noteworthy about the finding, the BBC reports, is that her level of coordination over the robotic arm rivaled the function of a healthy person with a normal arm.

Her breakthrough follows a similar advance in May by a 58-year-old woman paralyzed with a brain stem stroke. The tetraplegic individual has the BrainGate chip, about as big as a baby aspirin, implanted in her motor cortex, and she used her thoughts to tell a robotic arm to bring a bottle of coffee to her mouth, and drank from it. She and a 66-year-old man with the implant were able to tell a robot arm to pick up various foam "targets."

That work, as part of the ongoing BrainGate2 trial, involves the work of BrainGate and VA neuroscientist John Donoghue, who invented BrainGate, as well as researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Department of Veterans Affairs, among others (Disclosure: I once promoted the BrainGate work as a Brown University employee.)

CBS's "60 Minutes" profiled the University of Pittsburgh accomplishment, according to their online story (Scheuermann even shakes reporter Scott Pelley's hand with the robotic arm). It, and the Brown/VA research, are years from practical use. But they're meant, in part, to help military veteran amputees as well as non-military paraplegics, with a goal of putting robotic prostheses to use within the next few years.

- read the BBC story
- here's the CBS News piece
- check out the journal abstract

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