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Pitt finds success with brain implants in paralyzed patients

Luis Fábregas
| Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
Jan Scheuermann, 53, of Whitehall, who has quadriplegia, takes a bite out of a chocolate bar she has guided into her mouth with a thought-controlled robot arm. Research assistants Brian Wodlinger, Ph.D., and Elke Brown, M.D., watch in the background.
Courtesy of UPMC
Jan Scheuermann, 53, of Whitehall, who has quadriplegia, takes a bite out of a chocolate bar she has guided into her mouth with a thought-controlled robot arm. Research assistants Brian Wodlinger, Ph.D., and Elke Brown, M.D., watch in the background. Courtesy of UPMC

As a genetic condition gradually left her a quadriplegic, Jan Scheuermann was forced to shut down a successful business that produced murder mystery parties.

Yet the illness didn't zap her determination, and Scheuermann in July published a mystery book based on her popular parties.

Just before the book's publication, the Whitehall mother joined a yearlong University of Pittsburgh study that scientists believe will change their understanding of the human brain.

Using her thoughts, Scheuermann, 53, guided a robotic hand to complete tasks such as stacking plastic cones on a table, Pitt and UPMC researchers reported Sunday in the online edition of The Lancet, one of the best-known medical journals in the world.

She accomplished the unique feat because researchers implanted tiny chips into the part 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, said Andrew Schwartz, the study's lead author and a professor at Pitt's School of Medicine.

“She said she's never done skydiving, so this has been the ride of her life,” said Schwartz, who spent much of his career as a neurophysiologist doing similar experiments with monkeys.

Thirteen years ago, doctors diagnosed Scheuermann, a Baldwin native and mother of college-age children, with a condition called spinocerebellar degeneration. The disease damaged her nervous system, and she cannot voluntarily move her arms or legs.

Neurosurgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara implanted two electrodes on Scheuermann's brain on Feb. 10. Wires connect the electrodes to a device mounted on her skull.

On the second day of a 14-week training, Scheuermann moved the prosthetic to touch Schwartz's hand. She did so freely, without the computer's help.

In videos the journal provided, the robotic arm moves blocks on a table and transfers a ball from a glass to a measuring cup.

The Pitt researchers are among several in the world studying mind-controlled limbs. Their goal is to allow people to conduct simple tasks such as drinking, eating or turning on a TV set.

In 2011, Pitt researchers introduced Tim Hemmes, 30, of Butler County, who used a robotic arm seven years after a motorcycle accident paralyzed him.

Pitt scientists said their research involved technology that enables them to record neuron activity as each of the specialized cells in the nervous system fires off signals at different rates. This gives the prosthetic hand the ability to achieve more natural movements.

“For many years, we could record one neuron at a time,” Schwartz said. “Recording hundreds at a time took some new technology.”

Scheuermann's enthusiasm contributed greatly to the project's success, said Jennifer Collinger, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation science. Testing required Scheuermann to report to a laboratory three times a week, four hours a day, for 14 weeks.

“We were skeptical that things would translate so quickly,” Collinger said. “We moved faster than we ever expected.”

Although Scheuermann was able to move a ball back and forth and even bring a piece of chocolate to her mouth, Collinger said the most difficult task involved stacking the cones because it required precision.

The technology poses challenges, including the recording quality of the sensors, which Schwartz said degrades over time.

Researchers plan to implant electrodes in other people to stimulate regions of the brain that control touch. They are using monkeys to test technology that someday could allow people to tell whether something is hot or cold.

“We really think of it as a new way of thinking about brain function,” Schwartz said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, Department of Veterans Affairs and UPMC Rehabilitation Institute funded the project.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or

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