Mind Power Lifted This Paralyzed Man’s Artificial Arm

Tim Hemmes, 30, is the owner of an auto body detailing shop and motorcycle lover from the Pittsburgh area. His world changed forever one summer evening seven years ago when he swerved to miss hitting a deer and his bike hit a guardrail, snapping his neck. From then on, Hemmes has been working valiantly with researchers on how to develop technology that would allow quadriplegics to utilize their brains in order to have movement in parts of their bodies.

The brain is the center of our body’s universe, and once the communication is cut off between the brain and the other parts of the body, like it is in quadriplegics, the brain is not able to make the connections. Scientists in the realm of robotics have been at work developing a way for the brain to connect with the extremities through the use of computer electrodes attached to the brain that send out signals to prosthetic devices.

What seem like simple acts for the majority of us, like hugging our children or holding our sweetheart’s hand, are to people like Hemmes simple dreams that they hope will someday be fulfilled.

Hemmes was part of a month-long experiment conducted at the University of Pittsburgh. He was among a group of people who were working to develop thought-controlled prosthetics in order to give the paralyzed more independence. The goal is to blend the human mind with modern technology for what many believe is the most “humanlike bionic arm to date — even the fingers bend like real ones — with the tiny chips implanted in the brain.” Bypassing a broken spinal cord, the electrodes tap into electrical signals from brain cells that command movement and relay those signals to the robotic third arm.

Although years away from commercial use, numerous teams across the world are trying out different methods that would make this process work.

“It wasn’t my arm but it was my brain, my thoughts. I was moving something,” Hemmes says. “I don’t have one single word to give you what I felt at that moment. That word doesn’t exist.”

At the lab in Pittsburgh, monkeys have learned to feed themselves marshmallows by thinking a robot arm into motion. At Duke University, monkeys used their thoughts to move virtual arms on a computer and got feedback that let them distinguish the texture of what they “touched.”

Through a project known as BrainGate and other research, a few paralyzed people outfitted with brain electrodes have used their minds to work computers, even making simple movements with prosthetic arms. The question is, can these neuroprosthetics ever offer the complex, rapid movements that people would need for more practical, everyday use? “We really are at a tipping point now with this technology,” says Michael McLoughlin of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which developed the humanlike arm in a $100 million project for DARPA, the Pentagon’s research agency. A closely watched series of government-funded studies, led by Pittsburgh, are working for the next two years to find out the answer to the question.

“Imagine all the joints that are in your hand. There’s 20 motions around all those joints,” says Pittsburgh neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz. “It’s not just reaching out and crudely grasping something. We want them to be able to use the fingers we’ve worked so hard on.”

Hemmes’ worked with researchers to test out whether a new type of chip could allow for three-dimensional arm movement. For safety reasons, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only allowed him to carry the chips in his brain for a month. He was able to surprise researchers the day before the electrodes were to be removed by using his brain mind to push the arm forward and tap the palms of the scientists. He then turned to his girlfriend and, in an emotional and painstaking few moments was able to raise the black metal hand again and slowly rub its palm against hers for a few strokes. The room was hushed, but after it was over the scientists had a renewed sense of inspiration, and are now recruiting for a soon-to-be-started year-long series of experiments.

“It was awesome,” is the decidedly unscientific description from the normally reserved Dr. Michael Boninger, rehabilitation chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “To interact with a human that way. … This is the beginning.”

“There’s no owner’s manual,” Hemmes says, thrilled that the back-and-forth pays off. “I’m training my brain to figure how to do all this.”

Although Hemmes is excited about the progress, and ready to proceed when the University calls him back with more advances, his dream — like that of many quadriplegics, is to someday move his own hands again, without a bionic third hand.

“I believe this is the future,” he says. “Just let people know there’s hope.”

This is Ron White, two-time USA Memory Champion  . I look forward to seeing more progress in the advancement of this technology.

Memory Training


Associated Press – Paralyzed man used mind-powered robot arm to touch, by Lauran Neergaard: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hMh_z-wAEzd6VdIdARkZ3HaHXIhw?docId=1562361ceb294e7eb2c4ea1b2c7574f7

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