Implanted human brain in robotic

I was about 15 minutes late for my first phone call with Jan Scheuermann. When I tried to apologize for keeping her waiting, she stopped me. “I wasn’t just sitting around waiting for you, you know, ” she said, before catching herself. “Well, actually I was sitting around.”

Scheuermann, who is 54, has been paralyzed for 14 years. She had been living in California and running a part-time business putting on mystery-theater dinners, where guests acted out roles she made up for them. “Perfectly healthy, married, with two kids, ” she says. One night, during a dinner she’d organized, it felt as if her legs were dragging behind her. “I chalked it up to being a cold snowy night, but there were a couple of steps in the house, and boy, I was really having trouble, ” she says.

Anguished months of doctor’s visits and misdiagnoses followed. A neurologist said she had multiple sclerosis. By then, she was using an electric wheelchair and “fading rapidly.” She thought she was dying, so she moved home to Pittsburgh, where her family could take care of her children. Eventually she was diagnosed with a rare disease called spinocerebellar degeneration. She can feel her body, but the nerves that carry signals out from her brain no longer work. Her brain says “Move, ” but her limbs can’t hear.

Two and a half years ago, doctors screwed two ports into Scheuermann’s skull (she calls them “Lewis and Clark”). The ports allow researchers to insert cables that connect with two thumbtack-­size implants in her brain’s motor cortex. Two or three times a week, she joins a team of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and is plugged into a robotic arm that she controls with her mind. She uses it to move blocks, stack cones, give high fives, and pose for silly pictures, doing things like pretending to knock out a researcher or two. She calls the arm Hector.

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