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Brain implants let paralyzed woman move robot arm

Thanks to electrodes in her brain, quadriplegic Jan Scheuermann can manipulate objects for the first time in years.

University of Pittsburgh

Jan Scheuermann can't use her limbs to feed herself, but she's pretty good at grabbing a chocolate bar with her robot arm.

She's become the first to demonstrate that people with a long history of quadriplegia can successfully manipulate a mind-controlled robot arm with seven axes of movement. Earlier experiments had shown that robot arms work with brain implants.

Scheuerman was struck by spinocerebellar degeneration in 1996. A study on the brain-computer interface (BCI) linking Scheuermann to her prosthetic was published online in this month's issue of medical journal The Lancet.

Training on the BCI allowed her to move an arm and manipulate objects for the first time in nine years, surprising researchers.

It took her less than a year to be able to seize a chocolate bar with the arm, after which she declared, "One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI." Check it out in the video below.

"This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms," senior investigator Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt School of Medicine said in a release.

"This technology, which interprets brain signals to guide a robot arm, 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."

Scheuermann's brain was implanted with two quarter-inch square electrode grids. They have 96 tiny contact points for brain areas that control right arm and hand movement.

The electrodes pick up neurons firing to activate arm movement. Within a week of surgery, she could reach in and out, left and right, and up and down with her robot arm.

Her rapid progress has led researchers to estimate that similar robot arms could be available to far more patients in 5 to 10 years. The next step for the work will be to include feedback potential in the electrodes, so the brain can interpret sensations like grip strength from the arm.

Scheuermann will continue to test the device over the next two months.

"This is the ride of my life," she was quoted as saying. "This is the roller coaster. This is skydiving. It's just fabulous, and I'm enjoying every second of it."