A wife and mother of two, Jan Scheuermann, gets help these days from Hector — just simple things really, such as sorting and putting things away. Hector, hovering next to her, does her bidding — not by listening, but by reading her thoughts.
Hector, a nickname coined by Jan, is the most advanced robotic arm available today, and Jan, a decade-long quadriplegic, can once again feed herself a bite of chocolate. Unlike previous brain-computer interface robotic arms, where the user must think out each movement, Jan just has to think, for example, �put the ball in the box� and the arm executes, nearly simultaneously.
First, surgeons implanted in Jan�s brain two tiny electrode chips, each with dozens of hair-thin contacts. The electrodes picked up individual neurons� impulses as Jan imagined moving her hand and arm in certain motions.
Then the software algorithm, which is key to this study�s success, matched the neurons� firing patterns to certain movements. Researchers wrote the computer program based on years of studying how primates� brains control hand movements. The result is an unprecedented algorithm that closely resembles our brain�s process as it controls the upper limbs.
So intuitive is the program that Jan began calling the robot, �her arm�. The arm is not physically attached to her, but to the computer which also has cables running to plugs on Jan�s head. Plus, everything is happening in a lab.
Even though Jan can�t take home the arm and it�s constantly being tweaked, this study moves the field a giant step ahead. Consider that less than a decade ago, the brain-computer interface merely allowed users to move cursors on a computer screen.
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