While brain-controlled robotic limbs have been in development for a number of years now, the amount of control and accuracy of movement has increased dramatically recently, offering real hope to those with paralysis.
One woman, Jan Scheuermann, has surprised researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with her high level of skill and agility in controlling a robotic arm through thought alone.
Fifty-two-year-old Scheuermann was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease over 10 years ago and is now paralyzed from the neck down. According to a recent Reuters report, she “was able to operate the robotic arm with a level of control and fluidity not seen before in this type of advanced prosthesis.”
After weeks of special training, Scheuermann was able to control the arm with great skill, lifting objects and moving them to requested locations with an impressive 91.6 percent success rate. The video below demonstrates a number of intricate movements Scheuermann was able to make using the system.
The University of Pittsburgh’s technology comprises two microelectrodes that are attached to the part of a person’s brain that initiates movement. A patient’s thoughts pass to the robotic arm via a computer running a complex algorithm which interprets the brain signals and transforms them into physical actions. And that’s putting it very simply.
Speaking to Reuters about the technology, one of the researchers working on the project, Michael Boninger, described the electrodes as “remarkable” considering their tiny size. “You can’t buy them in Radio Shack,” he quipped.
According to Boninger, the real leap forward has come with the development of the algorithm.
“There is no limit now to decoding human motion,” he said, adding that although the challenges increase when working on parts like the hand, a greater understanding of how the brain controls motion means solutions are possible.
There is hope that one day the technology used in these mind-controlled robotic limbs could be combined with exoskeleton apparatus that enable paraplegics and quadriplegics to walk, much like the ReWalk robotic suit which has been in the news quite a bit this year.