This is truly extraordinary: Jan Scheuermann, a 52-year-old quadriplegic woman, has gained full control of a robotic arm. Not just simple commands, but truly complete control with "skill and speed almost similar to that of an able-bodied person."
According to the study — led by the University of Pittsburgh's professor of neurobiology Andrew Schwartz — she achieved this incredible feat after only 13 weeks of training:
The participant was able to move the prosthetic limb freely in the three-dimensional workspace on the second day of training. After 13 weeks, robust seven-dimensional movements were performed routinely. Mean success rate on target-based reaching tasks was 91·6 per cent (SD 4·4) versus median chance level 6·2 per cent (95 per cent CI 2·0-15·3). Improvements were seen in completion time (decreased from a mean of 148 s [SD 60] to 112 s ) and path efficiency (increased from 0·30 [0·04] to 0·38 [0·02]). The participant was also able to use the prosthetic limb to do skilful and coordinated reach and grasp movements that resulted in clinically significant gains in tests of upper limb function. No adverse events were reported.
Translation: Jan now has a robotic arm that she can control just like you can control your own arm.
To achieve this, Schwartz's team implanted two 96-channel intracortical microelectrodes in Jan's motor cortex, the part of the brain responsible of controlling the movement of our limbs. The results, according to the scientists, were uncanny. They were surprised by just how fast Jan took control of the robotic arm.
Schwartz says that this is "way better than anything that's been demonstrated before." So good that he believes it will change things forever:
I think it really is convincing evidence that this technology is going to be therapeutic for spinal cord injured people. They are doing tasks already that would be beneficial in their daily lives and I think that's fairly conclusive at this point.
It seems that a future in which we can replace a limb with a robotic version, just like Luke Skywalker got a new hand in Star Wars, is closer than what we previously thought. [The Lancet via BBC, The Guardian]