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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect