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Paralyzed Woman Gets Gift of Movement Back with Robotic Arm

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A woman who for years has been paralyzed from the neck down has been able pick up objects with ease thanks to a robotic arm -- and all she had to do is think about the action to accomplish it, U.S. researchers say.

Jan Scheuermann, 55, has been given exceptional control over a cutting-edge robotic arm thanks to tiny sensors embedded in the region of her brain responsible for controlling movement, sensors that were surgically implanted when she volunteered to be part of the research project at the University of Pittsburgh beginning in 2012.

Electrical impulses generated in her brain as she thinks about moving the arm are translated by a computer into commands to the arm, the researchers report in a description of their work published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

With ongoing work that involved recording Scheuermann's brain activity while she watched videos of arm movements and imagined making them, the researchers were able to teach the computer to take her brain signals and translate them into complex movements of the robotic arm.

"Our project has shown that we can interpret signals from neurons with a simple computer algorithm to generate sophisticated, fluid movements that allow the user to interact with the environment," says senior investigator Jennifer Collinger of the university's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R.)

From early efforts to just move and control the arm back, forth and sideways, Scheuermann has advanced to the point of being to able move the fingers of the robotic hand into numerous configurations, allowing her to grasp and manipulate objects of different shapes and sized, the researchers report.

"In the next part of the study, described in this new paper, Jan mastered 10D (10 dimensions of) control, allowing her to move the robot hand into different positions while also controlling the arm and wrist," says researcher Michael Boninger, chair of the PM&R department.

This is the first time such a wide range of motion has been achieved in this manner, the researchers say.

Scheuermann recently had the implanted electrodes removed from her brain, since although the robot arm and her use of it were incredible useful for study and research, it's not something she could utilize outside of the laboratory environment.

Still, she said she was glad of the opportunity to contribute to a project that could someday increase mobility for patients like her in the future.

"This is been a fantastic, thrilling, wild ride, and I am so glad I've done this," she said. "This study has enriched my life, given me new friends and coworkers, helped me contribute to research and taken my breath away. For the rest of my life, I will thank God every day for getting to be part of this team."

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