The lab at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was hushed as Tim Hemmes, 30, was able to rub a prosthetic calm across the palm of his girlfriends – an action that he had not been able to do since his summer motorcycle ride seven years ago ended when a swerve to miss a deer caused him to run into a guardrail and snap his neck. What made this movement so unique was not that a quadriplegic was able to use a prosthetic, but that he was able to do it with the use of his own brainpower.

Simple acts, like a high-five to your friends, or the ability to hug your children, are desires of those confined to wheelchairs. Technology being developed, such as that through the University of Pittsburgh, gives hope that someday quadriplegics will be able to not only touch, but actually FEEL the touch, of their loved ones.

Hemmes had a chip implanted on the surface of his brain that reads his intention to move his paralyzed arm and sends instructions instead to an advanced bionic arm. The goal is to create mind-controlled prosthetics to restore some independence to those who are paralyzed. From the success of this experiment, it appears there is hope that science is able 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.

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.

Hemmes was part of a month-long experiment conducted at the University of Pittsburgh testing 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, but at the final hour, the day before the electrodes were to be removed he used his mind to push the arm forward and tap the palms of the scientists’ hands. He then turned to his girlfriend for the emotion-packed moment that has renewed inspiration in the research team, and they 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.” “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.”

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.” “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.”

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.”

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.

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. Through other research projects, a few paralyzed people around the world are being outfitted with brain electrodes that use their minds to work computers, even making simple movements with prosthetic arms.

The question is, can these neuroprosthetics ever offer the complex, rapid movements needed 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.

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

This is Ron White, I look forward to seeing more progress in the advancement of this technology.




Associated Press – Paralyzed man used mind-powered robot arm to touch, by Lauran Neergaard: