User of robotic arm to speak at St. Elizabeth Elementary
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A news-making alumna of St. Elizabeth Elementary School in Baldwin Borough will return to share her story.
Jan Scheuermann of Whitehall, who was the subject of a "60 Minutes" feature on advancements in the use of robotic limbs, will speak Friday to students at the school that she and her two children attended. The Post-Gazette had published a story about her on Dec. 17.
In the 1990s, Mrs. Scheuermann was diagnosed with a degenerative spine disease that eventually rendered her a quadriplegic. Today, she gets around in a powered wheelchair that she maneuvers with her chin.
She also has learned to maneuver a robotic arm with her mind, through a technology called brain-computer interface, the result of her participation the past year in a project with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC.
Mrs. Scheuermann, a 53-year-old writer, suffers from spinocerebellar degeneration, in which the connections between the brain and muscles slowly and inexplicably deteriorate.
She learned about some of the work Pitt-UPMC researchers are doing by watching a video about a study involving a Butler man with a spinal cord injury. He moved objects on a computer screen and ultimately used a robotic arm to touch his girlfriend.
According to a Pitt-UPMC press release, Mrs. Scheuermann immediately had her attendant call the trial coordinator, and she said, "I'm a quadriplegic. Hook me up; sign me up. I want to do that!"
In February 2012, she underwent a procedure, performed by neurosurgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, to have a pair of quarter-inch-square electrode grids placed into regions of her brain that normally would control arm and hand movement.
"For a few hours after I woke up, I had the worst case of buyer's remorse," she recalls in her "60 Minutes" segment, which first aired Dec. 30. "I was thinking, oh my God, I had brain surgery. Why didn't anyone stop me? Why didn't they say, 'Jan, you're crazy.' But as soon as the headache went away, that kind of talk went away, too."
Two days after the operation, the study team set up a computer interface with Mrs. Scheuermann.
"We could actually see the neurons fire on the computer screen when she thought about closing her hand," said Jennifer Collinger, lead investigator for the study. "When she stopped, they stopped firing. So we thought, 'This is really going to work.' "
In 2008, "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley interviewed University of Pittsburgh neurobiologist Andrew B. Schwartz about his work with a Defense Department program called Revolutionizing Prosthetics, in which sensors were implanted in monkeys to use with robotic devices.
"Oh, we think a human being could do much better," Mr. Schwartz was quoted as saying at the time.
Four years later, he served as senior author of the study involving Mrs. Scheuermann.
"The training methods and algorithms that we used in monkey models of this technology also worked for Jan, suggesting that it's possible for people with long-term paralysis to recover natural, intuitive command signals to orient a prosthetic hand and arm to allow meaningful interaction with the environment," Mr. Schwartz said in a press release.
St. Elizabeth students will get a firsthand look at those possibilities, by a narrator who knows.
First Published February 7, 2013 5:36 am