Video: Paralysed woman moves bionic arm with mind

Remarkable step forward for prosthetics controlled directly by the brain

A quadriplegic woman has managed to feed herself a piece of chocolate using a bionic arm which she controls with her brain.

Researchers in the United States have developed a robotic arm controlled directly by thought with a level of agility closer than ever to a normal human limb.

Jan Scheuermann, a 52 year-old woman who was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder 13 years ago and is paralysed from the neck down, was able operate the robotic arm with a level of control and fluidity not seen before in this type of advanced prosthesis.

Experts are calling it a remarkable step forward for prosthetics controlled directly by the brain. Other systems have already allowed paralysed patients to type or write in freehand simply by thinking about the letters they want.

And in the last month, researchers in Switzerland used electrodes implanted directly on the retina to enable a blind patient to read.

The development of brain-machine interfaces is moving quickly and scientists predict the technology could eventually be used to bypass nerve damage and re-awaken a person's own paralysed muscles.

In the meantime, they say, systems like this could be paired with robotic 'exoskeletons' that allow paraplegics and quadraplegics to walk.

In the latest study, published in the Lancet, a research team from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center implanted two microelectrode devices into the woman's left motor cortex, the part of the brain that initiates movement.

The medics used a real-time brain scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to find the exact part of the brain that lit up after the patient was asked to think about moving her now unresponsive arms.

The electrodes were connected to the robotic hand via a computer running a complex algorithm to translate the signals that mimics the way an unimpaired brain controls healthy limbs.

"These electrodes are remarkable devices in that they are very small," Michael Boninger, who worked on the study, told Reuters. "You can't buy them in Radio Shack."

But Boninger said the way the algorithm operates is the main advance. Accurately translating brain signals has been one of the biggest challenges in mind-controlled prosthetics.

"There is no limit now to decoding human motion," he said. "It gets more complex when you work on parts like the hand, but I think that, once you can tap into desired motion in the brain, then how that motion is effected has a wide range of possibilities."

It took weeks of training for Scheuermann to master control of the hand, but she was able to move it after two days, and over time she completed tasks - such as picking up objects, orientating them, and moving them to a target position - with a 91.6 percent success rate. Her speed increased with practice.

The researchers plan to incorporate wireless technology to remove the need for a wired connection between the patient's head and the prosthesis.

They also believe a sensory loop could be added that gives feedback to the brain, allowing the user to tell the difference between hot and cold, or smooth and rough surfaces.

"This bioinspired brain-machine interface is a remarkable technological and biomedical achievement," said Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, who was not involved in the study.

"Though plenty of challenges lie ahead, these sorts of systems are rapidly approaching the point of clinical fruition," Courtine said in a comment piece in the Lancet linked to the study.

Although using technology to restore movement, sight or hearing in the disabled would for many seem uncontroversial, some disability rights groups and ethicists are wary.

They argue that restoring hearing, for instance, could fuel a prejudice that a deaf life is less rich, or less well lived.

Andy Miah, a professor at the University of the West of Scotland who has written extensively about human enhancement in the context of the Paralympics, says it is far from straightforward.

"For instance, a few years ago, there was a case of a deaf lesbian couple who sought to use in vitro fertilisation to select for deafness.

"They argued that absence of hearing is precisely not an impairment, but allows access to a rich community."

The ethics become more complex with the prospect of using these technologies to enhance the able-bodied.

"It's quite likely that therapy is the back door to enhancement in these kinds of technological interventions," says Miah. "People will question whether this is desirable, but we already live in a society that tolerates such modifications.

"Laser eye surgery interventions have grown astronomically over the last decade and nobody complains that it is making people superhuman."

For Jan Scheuermann, the experience has been transforming.

"It's given her a renewed purpose," said Boninger. "On the first day that we had her move the arm, there was this amazing smile of joy. She could think about moving her wrist and something happened."

Reuters

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week