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VA plays role in another brain-computer breakthrough

Jan Scheuermann, who has quadriplegia, prepares to take a bite out of a chocolate bar she has guided into her mouth with a thought-controlled robot arm. Research assistants Drs. Brian Wodlinger and Elke Brown watch in the background. (Photo: UPMC)
Sweet success—Jan Scheuermann, who has quadriplegia, prepares to take a bite out of a chocolate bar she has guided into her mouth with a thought-controlled robot arm. Research assistants Drs. Brian Wodlinger and Elke Brown watch in the background. (Photo: UPMC)

Just six months after scientists with VA and Brown University showed that people with total paralysis could control a robotic arm using only their thoughts, a similar milestone was reported by a group with VA and the University of Pittsburgh.

In an article published online in December in The Lancet, the Pittsburgh team described the brain-computer interface that enabled a 53-year-old woman with paralysis of all four limbs to intentionally move a robotic arm, turn and bend the device's wrist, and close its hand. Using only the robot and her mind, the woman was able to reach for and grasp objects without help from others, for the first time in nearly a decade.

"This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms," said senior investigator Andrew Schwartz, PhD, a professor of neurology at UP. Lead investigator was Jennifer Collinger, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UP and a research scientist for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

The research participant, Jan Scheuermann, received a diagnosis in 1998 of spinocerebellar degeneration, in which the connections between the brain and muscles slowly deteriorate. The cause of the disease is unknown.

In early 2012, the Pittsburgh researchers placed two small electrode grids in the parts of her brain that would normally control right arm and hand movement. Each grid has 96 tiny contact points. The electrodes pick up signals from individual brain cells. Computer algorithms identify the firing patterns associated with particular movements, such as raising or lowering the arm, or turning the wrist. That intent to move is then translated into actual movement of the robot arm, which was developed by the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University.

Within a week after having the electrodes implanted, Scheuermann could reach in and out, left and right, and up and down with the robotic arm. She was able to high-five with the researchers.

Within three months, she also could flex the wrist back and forth, move it from side to side and rotate it clockwise and counter-clockwise. She could also grip objects. In one study task, Scheuermann guided the arm from a position four inches above a table to pick up blocks and tubes of different sizes, a ball, and a stone, and put them down on a nearby tray. She also picked up cones from one base to restack them on another a foot away, another task requiring grasping, moving, and positioning of objects with precision.

"The training methods and algorithms that we used in monkey models of this technology also worked for Jan," explained Schwartz, "suggesting that it's possible for people with long-term paralysis to recover natural, intuitive command signals to orient a prosthetic hand and arm to allow meaningful interaction with the environment."

In a separate study, researchers with VA and UP are working on a method that uses an electrode grid placed on the exposed surface of the brain, rather than slightly under the tissue.

In both studies, "we're recording electrical activity in the brain, and the goal is to try to decode what that activity means and then use that code to control an arm," said co-senior investigator Michael Boninger, MD, professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UP and director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. He is also medical director for VA's Center of Excellence in Wheelchairs and Related Technology.

Boninger said he hopes that within 10 years, researchers will have developed "a device that can be used in the day-to-day lives of people who are not able to use their arms."

Added Collinger, "We're hoping this can become a fully implanted, wireless system that people can actually use in their homes without our supervision."

For now, Scheuermann is expected to continue to put the BCI technology through its paces for two more months, and then the implants will be removed in another operation.

"This is the ride of my life," she said. "This is the rollercoaster. This is skydiving. It's just fabulous, and I'm enjoying every second of it."

The BCI projects are funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, VA, and the University of Pittsburgh.

To view a video of Scheuermann using the system, visit

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