Jan Scheuermann, a Pittsburgh-area quadriplegic and published mystery writer, has learned to move a robotic arm using nothing but her thoughts. Her story and that of the ground-breaking technology, will be featured on Sunday, Dec. 30, on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Artificial limbs are not an option for those who are paralyzed. They end up using breath-controlled devices. However those devices cannot lift a cup of coffee, hold a spouse’s hand or wipe a runny nose.
Jan suffers from spinocerebellar degeneration, a genetic disease that has left her paralyzed from the neck down. She volunteered to have surgeons place two sensors directly in her brain. Those are they connected to a computerized robotic arm.
“I was a very healthy person and one day I felt like my legs were dragging behind me,” Jan Scheuermann recalled as she recounted the very first symptoms of her condition which triggered over a decade ago. At the time she was a prolific mystery writer and hosted murder mystery parties. Jan eventually lost mobility below her neck as her condition advanced and is now only able to move her head.
“I’ve always believed there’s a purpose to my illness,” she told Scott Pelley during the show taping. “I didn’t think I would find out what it was in my lifetime and here came this study where they needed me,” she says. “In a few years, the quadriplegics and the amputees, it’s just going to help.”
Before the project began she set one goal: To feed herself some chocolate. The project began when Jan allowed surgeons to attach two sensors to motor cortex of her brain so that she could communicate with the machine.
University of Pittsburgh’s Prof. Andrew Schwartz explained the process. “The way that neurons communicate with each other is by how fast they fire pulses. It’s a little bit akin to listening to a Geiger counter click, and it’s that property we lock onto.”
The team initially assisted Jan’s control of the robotic arm, fondly called Hector, but eventually turned over complete control of the appendage to her.
“Every time we do something new, it’s challenging at first, and when I get 28 out of 30, or whatever the score is, and they say that was all you, that wasn’t the computer doing it, I just can’t stop smiling. I’m moving things. I have not moved things for about 10 years,” she says in a UPMC documentary.
She started by mentally visualizing her hand turning, extending her arm and then went on to more difficult tasks. Prior to her surgery, Jan set one goal: to feed herself chocolate.
She not only can do that now but also shook hands with Pelley during the interview. You can watch her achieve this mission in a preview video released by the UPMC and CBS.
Researchers at the university agree that this is one of the most remarkable feats of this decade so far. It that hangs on the cutting edge of robotics and brain science and it perfectly captures just how powerfully robots can change lives.
“This is the ride of my life,” Scheuermann says. “I keep saying this is the rollercoaster, this is the skydiving. It’s just fabulous and I’m enjoying every second of it.”
When I interviewed Jan she told me that besides her participation in the project she is also excited about the publication of her latest mystery book, “Sharp as a Cucumber,” which was based on one of her murder mystery parties. It is available on Amazon Kindle.