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Wednesday 17th July 2019

Robotic arm controlled by thoughts

18th December 2012

Researchers in the United States say a paralysed woman has been able to achieve unprecedented control of a robotic arm using just her thoughts.


Jan Scheuermann, 53, was diagnosed with spinocerebellar degeneration at the age of 40, and lacks the ability to move from the neck down.

However, with two four-millimetre sensors implanted in her brain's motor cortex, she was able to manipulate and move a number of different items with the arm, using it in a manner similar to a normal arm.

Writing in The Lancet, researchers said the performance was unprecedented and a remarkable achievement in medical robotics.

Scheuermann lost the ability to move her arms and legs progressively, but the sensors' hundred tiny needles are sensitive enough to pick up on electrical activity from a tiny cluster of individual brain cells: about 200 in all.

According to Professor Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh the movement she was able to achieve was better than anything that has been previously demonstrated.

He said the technique relied on the fact that neurons communicate with each other by firing electrical pulses at certain speeds, which can be imagined something like the sound of a clicking Geiger counter.

That property is at the heart of the robotic arm, which translates the pulses into commands to move the arm.

The arm is able to bend at the elbow and wrist, and to pick things up.

Scheuermann was using the arm after just a day of training, and gained skill and subtlety in manipulating it over the 14-week study period.

She was able to use it with the level of dexterity similar to an able-bodied person by the end of the study.

Schwartz said the movements she could achieve with the arm were fluid, and accurate, and he hoped the technology would prove therapeutic and useful to people with spinal cord injuries.

The breakthrough comes just months after stroke patient Cathy Hutchinson served herself a drink using a robotic arm, after being partially paralysed 15 years earlier.

Now, Scheuermann could benefit from use of the arm in her home, and researchers are in the process of trying to fit it to her wheelchair, as well as investigating ways to restore sensation to the arm, so she will have a sense of touch.

According to Swiss researchers Gregoire Courtine, Silvesto Micera, Jack DiGiovanna and Jose del Millan, who reviewed the US study in The Lancet, designs of bionic limbs were getting much closer to the point where they could revolutionise treatment for paralysed patients.

Various neurological diseases and traumatic injuries permanently abolish sensory and motor functioning, and dramatically affect the quality of life of millions of individuals, they said, although no interventions have yet managed to restore neurological functioning in the severely paralysed.

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