Woman makes medical history

Computer completes connection between thoughts, movement


PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Jan Scheuermann was a 36-year-old married mother of two when she began to show symptoms of what doctors eventually diagnosed as a rare degenerative disease. By 43, she was paralyzed from the neck down. Now ten years later she is making medical history.

A seemingly simple task – taking a bite from a chocolate bar, but for Jan Scheuermann it was just short of a miracle.

"After ten years of not moving below the neck, I was causing something to move through space," said Scheuermann. "It was just so exciting, I can't tell you. I don't think they stopped me smiling for six months."

Scheuermann is moving a robotic arm by what researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center call BCI, brain-computer interface. She thinks the movement and the arm responds.

Surgeons implanted receptors in Scheuermann's head where her motor functions originate. A computer completes the connection between her thoughts and her movements. As part of the BCI trial, Scheuermann spends four days a week in the lab. Researchers continue to study the reaction time between her thoughts and the arm she calls Hector.

"I just see the target and I say to myself go there, and the arm goes there. It's a very natural brain function," Scheuermann explained.

Scheuermann also speaks to groups about her experience and the cutting edge science that is giving her hope, starting with middle school students at her hometown parish.

"The one little boy was like, ‘she's like a superhero,' which I just loved that comment because she really is! She's doing things that nobody's done before," Medical Attendant Karina Palko said.

Scheuermann will continue in the trial for another year. Researchers call her work brave and selfless.

"She's really not getting any benefit out of the study for herself," said Jen Collinger, PhD, with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. "She's not able to take it home, but she's really just sort of giving of herself so then we can develop this technology for people down the road."

"Never give up hope," advised Scheuermann. "If you're in my situation or a similar situation, never give up hope."

Although Jan is the second person to use the robotic arm, clinical trials could start in a few years and UPMC researchers say the robotic arm could be available for quadriplegics to use at home within ten years.

Additional Information:

Paralysis refers to a loss of muscle function in an area of the body. The extent of the paralysis can be varied with some people only losing function in one part of the body and others having more widespread function loss. Essentially, paralysis occurs when the brain is not able to send the muscles messages correctly. Sometimes this loss of muscle function is temporary and can be regained with time and rehabilitation, but paralysis can also be permanent. While there are several causes of paralysis, strokes and spinal cord injuries are the most common. Other causes include some nerve diseases, autoimmune diseases such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, Bell's palsy, and polio.  (Source: MedlinePlus)

How to Cope: Dealing with paralysis is difficult, especially for people who were paralyzed suddenly such as those who experienced a spinal cord injury. Here is some advice on how individuals as well as their family and friends can cope:

  • Learn as much as possible about your specific situation.
  • Commit to therapy and, if applicable, rehabilitation.
  • Set long term goals but be patient with the progress.
  • Start with simple tasks and work up to bigger ones.
  • Celebrate all achievements, including small ones.
  • Learn about equipment and support services.

(Source: brainandspinalcord.org)

Brain – Computer Interface: The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine uses the brain-computer interface (BCI) technology to help paralyzed individuals. In a 2011 research study, a quadriplegic named Tim Hemmes was able to move objects on a computer screen and eventually moved a robotic arm to touch his girlfriend using BCI. A video of Hemmes motivated Jan Scheuermann, who was paralyzed due to spinocerebellar degeneration, to contact the University. In February of 2010, researchers placed two quarter-inch square electrode grids with 96 tiny contact points in Jan's brain where left and right arm movement are controlled. On top of Jan's head, two terminals which can be hooked up to the computer were placed. Jan thinks an action and the robotic arm carries it out. The trial has been extended for another year and researchers hope to create a two-way electrode system that will stimulate the brain to generate sensation. (Source: upmc.com)