Scientists from the University of Pittsburg report amazing success with a new kind of brain interface that allows a quadriplegic woman to demonstrate fine motor controls with a robot arm.
Guinea pig Jan Scheuermann, who has been paralyzed for nearly a decade, had two 4mm-by-4mm chips implanted in her brain, one in the area used to control her hands and another connected to neurons that operate her shoulder. The chips are controlled using two 96-channel intracortical microelectrodes plugged directly into the top of Ms. Scheuermann's skull, penetrating the brain by 1/16th of an inch.
"I can't stop smiling, it's so cool," she said at a press conference on Monday. "I'm moving things – I haven't moved things for nearly 10 years."
The team was astonished at how quickly Ms. Scheuermann was able to control the robot arm using the brain-computer interface (BCI). In a paper published in The Lancet, they report that she could grip with the robot hand within two days of the brain surgery and can now successfully move the entire arm through seven different angles of motion over 90 per cent of the time.
Scheuermann said that she has now advanced to the point where she doesn't have to consciously control each movement of the robot hand – which she calls Hector – but she just thinks of the target action and the arm does the rest. She fulfilled a promise to herself by using the robot arm to feed herself a piece of chocolate.
"One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI," she said.
While the arm itself and the brain interface needed to control it are very bulky, the range of motion and the ease with which it can be achieved has the team excited about the technology's future possibilities. Looking ahead, it may be possible to scale it down so that someone could use it at home or in the office.
"This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms,” agreed senior investigator Professor Andrew Schwartz of the department of neurobiology at Pitt School of Medicine, in a statement.
"This technology 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." ®