Think It & Do It

Jan Scheuermann moves a robotic arm with her brain signals in order to eat a chocolate bar.
Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2014

The development of brain-controlled robotics can help users with paralysis perform everyday tasks using only their minds.

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Imagine playing Scrabble, checking email or even making a sandwich with your thoughts.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh want to help individuals with disabilities do just that. They’re developing brain-controlled assistive technology for individuals who have little or no use of their arms and hands with the goal of increasing their independence.

In brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, small sensors are surgically placed on the brain so movement signals from the brain can be captured and used to control a robotic limb, a computer cursor or even environmental controls.

There are several ongoing research studies at Pittsburgh using different kinds of devices to record brain activity in order to produce movement.

Have Some Chocolate

One of the recording devices is a microelectrode array.

It’s the approximate size of a pencil eraser with 100 tiny electrodes that penetrate slightly into the area of the brain that controls movement.

By using two of these microelectrode arrays, the Pittsburgh team has demonstrated the ability to control seven degree-of-freedom movements of a robotic arm (three-dimensional movement of the arm in space, three-dimensional rotation of the wrist and the opening or closing of the hand for grasping).

Jan Scheuermann is paralyzed below the neck and had two microelectrode arrays surgically placed on her brain. Scheuermann used them to control a robotic arm to maneuver objects, shake hands and even feed herself a chocolate bar. She did this 10 years after losing the ability to move her own arms.

“I’m so glad I did this,” Scheuermann says. “I’ve always believed there was a purpose to my illness. I didn’t believe that I would ever find out what it was in my lifetime. And here came this study where they needed me! In a few years, the quadriplegics and amputees that this is going to help — to be of use to the veterans and to be of service to them — what an honor!”

Brain Power

Another method of recording brain activity for movement is with electrocorticography (ECoG).

An ECoG sensor is a sheet of silicon about the size of two U.S. postage stamps containing small platinum disks to pick up the brain’s natural electromagnetic signals.

Much larger ECoG sensors are clinically used to locate seizure activity in the brains of patients with epilepsy. For BCI research, the ECoG sensor sits on the brain’s surface over the area which controls movement.

Researchers demonstrated that a man paralyzed below the neck used an ECoG sensor to control three-dimensional movement of animated computer objects and also a robotic prosthetic arm within 30 days of implantation.

Seven years after he lost the ability to move his own arms, the man used his brain’s movement control signals to produce external movement.

More Work to Do

There has been plenty of research done to demonstrate that BCI technology has the potential to assist with reaching and grasping activities.

However, there’s more work to be done to enable this technology to “live at home” and improve the everyday lives of people with physical disabilities.

The focus of ongoing BCI research is to ensure the long-term safety of using sensors on the brain, maximize the capabilities of brain-controlled assistive technology, increase the portability of recording brain signals using wireless technology and promote the stability, accuracy and longevity of BCI devices.

As these challenges are addressed, more productive uses for BCI technology will emerge and become within reach.

Ultimately, research efforts aim to make BCI technology usable and available to increase the independence and quality of life of individuals who have paralysis because of spinal-cord injury or other conditions that may impair the use of one’s arms and hands.

Combined Efforts

Many of our nation’s veterans return from military service with disabilities that greatly diminish their independence and ability to perform basic physical tasks.

Some vets lose the power to move their own limbs in the prime of their lives because of accidents and degenerative diseases that attack, weaken and/or destroy the connection between brain and body.

There are scientists that focus on the regeneration and repair of severed spinal cord or other nervous system connections. Others are developing the use of functional electrical stimulation to externally activate muscle movement.

The focus of Pittsburgh’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation research team is to record, decode and redirect the intact signals from the brain in order to generate useful movement.

It’s possible that in the future, the combined application of all of these strategies will have a tremendous impact upon a person’s ability and independence.

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