Mind-controlled robotic arm has skill and speed of human limb

2012-12-17T064239Z_1_CBRE8BG0IN700_RTROPTP_2_SCIENCE-PROSTHETICS-MINDCONTROLBy Chris Wickham

A paralyzed woman has been able to feed herself chocolate and move everyday items using a robotic arm directly controlled by thought, showing a level of agility and control approaching that of a human limb. Jan Scheuermann, 53, from Pittsburgh, was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder 13 years ago and is paralyzed from the neck down.

“It’s so cool,” said Scheuermann during a news conference. “I’m moving things. I have not moved things for about 10 years … It’s not a matter of thinking which direction anymore it’s just a matter of thinking ‘I want to do that’.”

She was shown feeding herself string cheese and chocolate unaided as well as moving a series of objects in tests designed for recovering stroke victims, and she was able to do it with speeds comparable to the able bodied.

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

In the past month, researchers in Switzerland also 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 paralyzed muscles.

In the meantime, they say, systems like the one developed by the U.S. researchers could be paired with robotic “exoskeletons” that allow paraplegics and quadriplegics to walk. For Scheuermann, the experience has already been transforming.

“It’s given her a renewed purpose,” Michael Boninger, who worked on the study published in The Lancet, told Reuters. “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.”

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