Wielding robotic arm is an emotional high

Whitehall woman is a pioneer in thought control

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Paralyzed from the neck down for nine years, Jan Scheuermann said she has been happier since February. The reason is historical.

For the past 10 months, the 53-year-old Whitehall woman has participated in breakthrough research at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh by operating a robotic arm only with thoughts to pick up and move objects, shake hands and feed herself chocolate, string cheese and a slice of red pepper.

It has proven that a mind-controlled robotic arm can be used successfully to do the daily necessities of life with hope that advancements in the research will allow people unable to use their arms to live independently.

"How wonderful it is to make a difference," Ms. Scheuermann said. "This means down the road someone else will be able to do it. I felt the power the first day they hooked me up. Look what I can do. It put me on a high, and I haven't come down from it."

With spiked energy during the research project, she finished writing a murder mystery, "Sharp as a Cucumber," now available online. Her sense of humor is reinvigorated, as the first line of the novel reveals: "And to think that I almost missed a murder because I broke a nail."

She also met her initial goal when she decided to participate in the research, which required surgery to imbed two computer chips into her brain near neurons or populations of neurons to capture brain signals that a computer translates and instructs the robotic arm and hand to make the motions necessary to perform the intended action.

Her initial goal? To feed herself chocolate for the first time in nine years. She succeeded.

She will continue with the research for coming months, then serve as a trailblazer in promoting the research that's been under way for decades to control a robotic arm with the mind.

Pitt and UPMC held an expansive news conference Monday at UPMC Montefiore to celebrate her success in operating the robotic arm, which the research team said could be available commercially in the next five to 10 years. Users would include people with quadriplegia and amputations and even those disabled by strokes. An ultimate goal is to rewire the brain around any spinal injury, or even brain injury, to activate arm and hand muscles and allow them to function normally.

In the past 10 months, Ms. Scheuermann developed the ability to "perform many of the natural and complex motions of everyday life," a news release states. She learned to move the arm, turn and bend the wrist and close the hand -- acts Ms. Scheuermann did for herself for the first time since she became fully quadriplegic nine years ago from spinocerebellar degeneration. The disease causes deterioration of the connections between the brain and muscles.

Her success follows the accomplishments of Tim Hemmes, the Butler County man whose quadriplegia eight years ago resulted from a motorcycle accident. He was first to move the robotic arm with his mind. But the technology required more vigorous training and mental effort, often leading to exhaustion. He did succeed in dramatic fashion to reach out and touch his girlfriend's hand in 2011. Mr. Hemmes is still involved with the project and attended the news conference.

New technology has made it easier to operate the arm with the mind.

"This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms," Andrew B. Schwartz, a Pitt neurobiologist and the study's senior author, said in a news release. "This technology, which interprets brain signals to guide a robot arm, has enormous potential that we are continuing to explore."

The study published online Sunday in The Lancet shows that Ms. Scheuermann accomplished seven degrees of freedom, including moving the arm in three dimensions, along with three different motions of wrist and grasping motion of the fingers. Currently Ms. Scheuermann has advanced to 10 degrees of freedom, involving more sophisticated use of the fingers, showing that the research is advancing at a quick pace.

Before paralysis set in, Ms. Scheuermann ran a successful business planning parties with murder-mystery themes. Then her leg began dragging and her arms weakened, requiring her to use a wheelchair, with an attendant necessary to help her eat, bathe, dress and do other daily activities. She's now fully quadriplegic and spends time doing the New York Times crossword puzzle and playing Scrabble online.

During the news conference, she reveled in how the use of the robotic arm has renewed her spirit. "Everything I did, it was just thinking," Ms. Scheuermann said. "It energizes me. It gives me purpose."

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David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. First Published December 18, 2012 5:00 AM


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