In MIT’s Technology Review, Antonio Regalado reports that paralyzed patients are participating in long-term studies of how putting implants in the brain to create brain-controlled prosthetics and computers may help paralyzed people in the future. Jan Scheuermann, 54, is one of these patients. After she awoke from her brain surgery, she was able to control a robotic arm within days. The findings from these studies were published in journals and made it onto the newsmagazine program 60 Minutes. But Scheuermann wasn’t expecting what would happen to her after she was out of the spotlight:
Since the TV cameras went away, however, some of the shortcomings of the technology have become apparent. At first Scheuermann kept demonstrating new abilities. “It was success, success, success,” she says. But controlling Hector has become harder. The reason is that the implants, over time, stop recording. The brain is a hostile environment for electronics, and tiny movements of the array may build up scar tissue as well. The effect is well known to researchers and has been observed hundreds of times in animals. One by one, fewer neurons can be detected.
Scheuermann says no one told her. “The team said that they were expecting loss of neuron signals at some point. I was not, so I was surprised,” she says. She now routinely controls the robot in only three to five dimensions, and she has gradually lost the ability to open and close its thumb and fingers. Was this at all like her experience of becoming paralyzed? I asked her the question a few days later by e-mail. She replied in a message typed by an aide who stays with her most days: “I was disappointed that I would probably never do better than I had already done, but accepted it without anger or bitterness.”
Photo: Joshua Zader