December 31, 2012
‘Breakthrough’ they say. 60 Minutes’s Scott Pelley used the term to describe the thought-controlled robot arm, though I suspect he may not have seen such machinery before. But given how this arm is controlled, “breakthrough” might be the appropriate term.
Jan Scheuermann appeared on Wheel Of Fortune in 1995. A year after her appearance, she was diagnosed with a hereditary condition called spinocerebellar degeneration (ataxia), which causes parts of her brain and spinal column to degenerate, leaving her a quadriplegic. Researchers at University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt School of Medicine attached two electrode arrays to her brain near the areas used for arm movement, and in a year she was able to use the arm as well as a normal person.
Four years in the making. The arm is the result of a Defense Department project called “Revolutionizing Prosthetics,” a project looking at making a new generation of prosthetic limbs that restore normal functions for soldiers who lost limbs in battle.
Sooner or later, this technology had to come to the average person, not just paraplegics but amputees as well.
In Jan’s case, having to connect the arm directly to her brain was necessary since her ataxia has ruined the connection(s) between her brain and limbs. For amputees, the connections are still intact so the connection can be made at the nerve endings.
Further refinements. Jan’s new arm is impressive, but still far from perfect. In the 60 Minutes video Jan has problems with grabbing objects she looks at. One possible solution is to use ‘touch’ sensors in the fingers to give feedback. Another possibility being considered is the use of Wi-Fi to eliminate the skull connectors.
Restoring arm and leg functions for amputees and paraplegics are only the beginning. They’re also looking at eyes (no pun intended), ears, and even artificial internal organs for for stroke and cerebral palsy victims, and even the elderly.
Once such artificial limbs and organs are ready for the general public, the only thing left to worry about is…