Mind over machine helping the paralyzed move

August 17, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Eating a hamburger, drinking a cup of coffee, hugging a loved one.

Actions we take for granted everyday seem miraculous to someone who is paralyzed from the neck down. Researchers are now working on helping quadriplegics realize those goals by tapping into the power of their minds.

"These are all the dogs I've adopted out this year," Tim Hemmes told Action News.

Hemmes runs a pit bull rescue. He designed the website himself.

"Anything you can do on a computer, I'm able to do," Hemmes said.

Pretty amazing considering he does it all using his nose and a specialized computer. Hemmes is paralyzed from the neck down. A motorcycle accident changed everything for him eight years ago. His infant daughter was the last person he touched before he went for that ride. Now, Jaylei is Hemmes's driving force.

"I have to hug her one more time. I have to put my arms around her. Feel her, touch her," Hemmes said.

That's why he enrolled in an experimental study at the University of Pittsburgh, using the mind- to move a machine.

"Someone with a spinal cord injury or amputation can generate the thought to have movement but because of the spinal cord injury the thought doesn't go through," Dr. Michael Boninger, UPMC rehabilitation institute, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine told Action News.

Researchers placed an electrode grid onto the top of Hemmes's brain. A wire was attached to the grid-guided under the skin of his neck and exited from Hemmes's chest. That wire was plugged into a computer, decoding the brain signals and putting them into action. Hemmes was able to control a mechanical arm by using his thoughts - at one point reaching out to his girlfriend.

"It may have been plastic and metal, but I was able to put it there. I was able to hold it out to her for the first time. That's something I'll take with me forever," Hemmes said.

"Hemmes wants to be able to hug his daughter. We want him to be able to feel when he hugs his daughter." Dr. Boninger concluded.

The grid is still years away from commercial use, but it's giving Hemmes something to focus on.

The FDA only approved the grid for thirty days of testing. After the trial, surgeons removed it from Hemmes's brain. Hemmes's dream is to hug his daughter by her wedding day.

For more information, contact:
Anita Srikamav
University of Pittsburg School of Medicine
srikamav@upmc.edu


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