For the first time ever, a quadriplegic woman has used her thoughts to move a robotic hand across 10 degrees of freedom. The remarkable system allowed her to pick up a variety of objects, including skinny tubes and oddly shaped rocks.

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Yet another reminder of the progress being made in not just prosthetics, but in their integration with neural interface devices as well. In this case, Jan Scheuermann, who lost the ability to control her limbs a decade ago, was able to use her thoughts to manipulate a robotic arm and hand with remarkable agility.

Back in 2012, she was surgically implanted with small electrode grids, each with 96 contact points. They were placed in regions associated with the parts of the brain that would normally control her right arm and hand movement. The electrodes pull signals from individual neurons, which are then transmitted to a computer for identification and triggering.

The system has since been upgraded, allowing Scheuermann to manipulate the hand with 10D of control (as compared to the previous 7D). She can now move the hand into different positions, while also controlling the arm and wrist. Also, the simple pincer grip was replaced by four hand shapes, namely finger abduction (allowing the fingers to be spread out), scoop (where the fingers can curl in), thumb opposition (in which the thumb moves away from the palm), and a pinch of the thumb, index, and middle fingers.

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Across a series of tests, Scheuermann was observed to pick up big and small boxes, a ball, an oddly shaped rock, and fat and skinny tubes.

The system was developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Their ensuing study can be found at the Journal of Neural Engineering.

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[ New Scientist, Pittsburgh Post Gazette ]

Images: University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine/IOP Publishing