Brain-robotics research at Pitt may help people with ALS

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Two years ago, a quadriplegic man from Butler County demonstrated how he could control a robotic arm with his mind.

Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh believe that same technology could be used by people with non-spinal injuries that also restrict movement, such as patients with multiple sclerosis, known as MS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS.

"All these populations are potentially candidates, or potentially can benefit, from this technology down the road," said Wei Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a member of the Brain Computer Interface Research Project at Pitt's Human Rehabilitation and Neural Engineering Laboratory.

But just as two years ago Butler County's Tim Hemmes had to test and practice the new technology before researchers could achieve a breakthrough, Dr. Wang said his research group needed new subjects to prove whether its electrocorticography (ECoG) technology, which uses an electronic grid surgically placed along the brain to capture brain signals, has broader application.

"We need a test pilot," he said.

Today, Dr. Wang and possibly Mr. Hemmes will speak about the brain computer interface technology and demonstrate how it works at a Cranberry symposium hosted by the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the ALS Association. There will be other demonstrations about technology to improve the quality of life for people with ALS, such as speech generating devices that use eye movement to allow a person to create speech as well as "smart house" technology.

The local ALS Association holds symposiums each year, considering it part of its mission, alongside providing medical services and resources to the approximately 300 families in Western Pennsylvania living with ALS at any one time, said executive director Merritt Holland Spier.

"A large part of our mission is to educate, not just people living with ALS, but their families and their caregivers and the professionals who treat them," she said. "So, symposiums like this keep all the people that we serve up to date on the latest information possible for those living with ALS."

People with ALS, a disease that affects the motor neurons, have an average life expectancy of two to five years after diagnosis. They lose control of their muscles and will eventually become paralyzed.

But patients could see their lives enhanced if the Pitt researchers' technology worked for them, she said.

"The potential for it to help someone with ALS is profound," she said.

Dr. Wang called the research, so far, "very promising," and said it could also shed more light on the progression of ALS, a disease that has been called the "glass coffin" because it leaves a person's mind intact while rendering paralysis.

People interested in participating in the study can call research coordinator Debbie Harrington at 412-383-1355. The free ALS symposium is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at the Regional Learning Alliance, 850 Cranberry Woods Drive.

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM


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