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UPMC researchers present mind-controlled robotic hand

| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, 12:03 a.m.
Jan Scheuermann, a quadriplegic woman from Whitehall, receives a drink from Dr. Michael Boninger on Monday before a news conference in UPMC Montefiore announcing the development of a mind-controlled robotic prosthetic hand. Boninger, director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, is one of two principal investigators in the technology developed at the University of Pittsburgh with UPMC researchers. The device gives Scheuermann, a quadriplegic, a degree of control and freedom of movement never before achieved in humans. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Jan Scheuermann, a quadriplegic woman from Whitehall who participated in a mind-controlled robotic-arm technology study developed at the University of Pittsburgh during a press conference at UPMC Montefiore, Monday, December 17, 2012, announcing University of Pittsburgh and UPMC researchers developement of a robotic prosthetic hand controlled by the thoughts of Scheuermann, with a degree of control and freedom of movement that has never before been achieved in humans. The research, published Online First in The Lancet, represents a huge step forward in the development of mind-controlled robotic prosthetic limbs, with the range of movement and control achieved nearing that attainable by people without any impairment.

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 jcato@tribweb.com.

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