UPMC researchers present mind-controlled robotic hand
By Jason Cato
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Jan Scheuermann considers herself blessed.
A degenerative disease left her without use of her arms for the past decade. But a yearlong study gave her a chance to use brain power and a robotic arm to guide a candy bar to her lips.
“Being part of the research, being part of science, this is something I can offer,” Scheuermann, 52, of Whitehall said Monday during a UPMC news conference introducing her and celebrating the research.
“I feel like I get a lot more out of the study than the study gets out of me,” Scheuermann said, drawing a chorus of “awwws” from a crowd of more than 50 inside an auditorium at UPMC Montefiore in Oakland. Lead members of the research team and Tim Hemmes, a paralyzed man from Butler County who last year used a robotic arm in a University of Pittsburgh study, joined in the celebration.
In February, researchers implanted two electrodes into the section of Scheuermann's brain that initiates movement. The electrodes recorded electrical pulses from nerve cells that a computer algorithm interpreted and translated into movement commands, researchers said.
Using her thoughts, Scheuermann guided a robotic hand she came to call Hector to complete tasks such as moving objects and stacking plastic cones.
Researchers reported their findings online this weekend in The Lancet, one of the world's top medical journals.
More researchers, volunteers and funding are needed to continue advancements in the field, said senior investigator Dr. Michael Boninger, director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and professor and chairman of Pitt's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Those advances one day could lead to fully implantable limbs that feel sensations and look and operate normally, he said.
“We really do believe there is hope in other populations,” Boninger said. “We've never had the ability to tap into the brain like we have now.”
Future applications could help stroke patients as well as people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries or have degenerative diseases such as Scheuermann, who has a genetic condition that gradually left her a quadriplegic.
“The population we can apply this to,” said Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, who implanted the sensors in Scheuermann's brain, “might be as wide as our imaginations.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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