Brain Implants to Control Robotic Limbs Find Breakthrough

December 18, 2012, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

Mind-control or controlling things with your mind is a fascinating bit of science that scientists have been researching on for quite some time. The medical aspect of that research was to provide a means for people with a history of quadriplegia to manipulate robotic limbs with their minds.

The first breakthrough has been made in the case of Jan Scheuermann who was struck by spinocerebellar degeneration in 1996. But now she can successfully manipulate a mind-controlled robotic arm.

The Lancet, a medical journal, has published a study done on the brain-computer interface (BCI) linking Scheuermann to her prosthetic limb. She trained on the BCI for a while, and now she can quite adeptly pick up a chocolate bar with her robotic hand.

Within nine years, this is the first time she has been able to manipulate researchers, and she has surprised researchers with her dexterity. It took her less than a year on training with the BCI to seize a chocolate bar.

Scheuermann described her action thus: “One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI.”

Andrew Schwartz, senior investigator of the University of  Pittsburgh’s Pitt School of Medicine, said that this is a “spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms.”

“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,” he added.

There are two quarter-inch square electrode grids implanted inside Scheuermann’s brain. These tiny things have 96 tiny contact points for brain areas which deal with right arm and hand movement; neurons that are involved in activating arm movement will be picked up by the electrodes.

After surgery, Scheuermann was able to control the robotic arm within a week. According to researchers, robotic arms will be available to more patients in 5 to 10 years.

The next level of research is to include feedback potential in the electrodes, thus allowing the brain to interpret sensations like grip strength. Scheuermann will be using the device, testing it over the next two months.

Below is the video of her manipulating the arm.

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