Brain-machine interface success allows paralysed woman to feed herself for first time in a decade.

Today the Guardian newspaper has a fascinating report on how a woman named Jan Scheuermann, quadraplegic for over a decade due to a spinal  degenerative disease, was able to feed herself with the help of two intracortical microelectrode arrays that monitored her motor neuron activity and allowed her to manipulate a robotic arm and hand with unprecedented fluency and accuracy.

Commenting on her performance Professor Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh said:

“We were blown away by how fast she was able to acquire her skill, that was completely unexpected, at the end of a good day, when she was making these beautiful movements, she was ecstatic.”

Professor Schwartz’s name may well be familiar to readers of this blog, and with good reason. Back in 2008 Professor John Stein wrote a post for this blog on a landmark study in which Professor Schwartz and his colleagues implanted identical microelectrody arrays into the brains of two  macaque monkeys, enabling them to manipulate a robotic arm feed themselves marshmallows. This successful study – itself the product of more than two decades of – led directly to the clinical study reported today.

It’s worth remembering that this technology will require further refinement before it is ready for wider use outside of a laboratory setting, but this study shows what can be achieved and provides the proof-of-principle necessary to encourage further investment in this approach.  It is also worth noting that it is far from the only game in town, last year we reported on Prof. Schwartz’s teams success using another method known as electrocorticography to enable a man named Tim Hemmes to control a robotic arm, though with somewhat less dexterity than that reported today, and this year we have also taken a look at the very promising results obtained through the use of spinal electrostimulation and olfactory ensheathing cell transplant to overcome paralysis. Not all these approaches will be appropriate for all patients, and ultimately they may be combined in some cases, but they do provide strong evidence that after decades of hard work and important discoveries in laboratories around the world, neuroscience is now poised to transform the treatment of spinal injuries.

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