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Pitt to study 'brain-computer interface' for paralyzed patients

Matthew Santoni
| Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011

Four years after a fall and a spinal injury left him with only minor movement in his arms and fingers, pathologist James Childs is anticipating University of Pittsburgh research that could someday enable paralyzed patients to control sophisticated robotic limbs using their minds.

"I've been looking for various ways to be more functional, since my wife has spent a lot of time taking care of me," said Childs, 62, of Kittanning. "If I could use my fingers, I could go back to work. ... Even if I can use my arms, it would help me move from my wheelchair to bed."

Pitt researchers will use $6.8 million granted Thursday by the federal government to study how computer interfaces implanted into patients' brains could help them move robotic arms that mimic human ones. The research on monkeys and short-term human implants will move to longer-term experiments involving people with spinal injuries.

"Up until now, we haven't tried that in somebody that has paralysis," said Dr. Michael Boninger, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Rehabilitation Institute and chairman of Pitt's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. "We anticipate learning a ton of information by working with someone who's really motivated to learn how to move these things."

The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, gave Pitt $800,000 to recruit at least one patient with a spinal injury and implant a brain-computer interface onto the surface of the part of the brain controlling motor functions, Boninger said.

Sixteen electrodes on the tiny interface will pick up groups of brain cells as they "fire." Then a computer will process those signals, converting them into movements.

Researchers observing epilepsy patients for seizures watched as their brains utilized temporary interfaces to move cursors and play games. The NIH grant will allow an implant to remain in a patient with a spinal injury for up to a month, letting the patient manipulate virtual objects on a computer screen and real-life objects using robotic limbs.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is providing up to $6 million over three years for a joint program led by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. The program will advance research by Dr. Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the Pitt School of Medicine, which implanted interfaces into the brains of monkeys and observed how a primate was able to move a mechanical hand to pick up pieces of food.

The DARPA grant will let Schwartz conduct human research and explore more sophisticated robotic limbs, Boninger said.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington yesterday, Schwartz discussed how he and fellow Pitt researchers added a wrist joint to the mechanical arm that monkeys tested. Adding the wrist to the mechanical gripper, shoulder and elbow lets the robotic arm make complex movements that are more lifelike.

Schwartz anticipates working with human patients this year. The next step of arm development, at Johns Hopkins, would create a mechanical hand.

"By June, we expect a human to be able to manipulate the new arm," Schwartz said. "The grant money gives us this new high-performance arm, the most advanced in the world."

Boninger said the research could open possibilities for helping people who are paralyzed. He and Schwartz have researched spinal cord injuries for 16 years, Boninger said, "and he's been wanting to get to this point forever."

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