Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Victor Habbick/Getty Images
Those first neuron firings were the start of a long process in which Scheuermann and the team have been training the robotic arm to move, creating a feedback loop between her nerve signals and the attached computer­ that moves the robotic arm. These days, Scheuermann can pinch the robotic fingers together and scoop up items as small as a one-inch cube.

Even now, her achievements give Ling tingles. “I’ve had eminent, eminent scientists who will remain unnamed who told me that it was not possible within 25 years,” he says.

The long-term hope is that endurance training by Scheuermann, and eventually other patients, will help design a more automated system that doesn’t have to be tailored to each user, Tyler-Kabara says. “They need to be able to wake up in the morning and it’s working,” she says.

Other hurdles also will have to be cleared before the Johns Hopkins arm will be available outside of a research-lab setting, Ling says. Another goal: to make the brain technology wireless. At this point, the computer that controls the robotic arm is wired to the two port terminals sitting roughly along where Scheuermann’s hair parts. “You look like a Frankenstein creation,” Scheuermann quips.

The APL arm also has sensory capabilities, with 74 sensors in the hand itself, including for vibration and temperature, according to Ling. The next step: to see if two-way sensory feedback can be achieved between the robotic arm and the brain.

As of this spring, researchers were in the process of recruiting another individual with quadriplegia to build upon what Scheuermann has achieved, Tyler-Kabara says. For that surgery, electrode arrays will be implanted in areas of the brain that process sensation, as well as movement.

But all of this innovation doesn’t come cheap. “The strap-and-go arm right now is pushing about $100,000,” Ling says, adding that as more are manufactured, that cost likely will decline due to economy of scale. “This is as high as [the price] is going to be.”

SCHEUERMANN, WHO HAS TWO grown children and relies on a caregiver while her husband works, also foresees numerous practical uses. With a mind-controlled arm, she could turn pages rather than rely on audio books. She could push a button to activate a phone and make a call, including to 911, a capability currently out of her reach.

The Pittsburgh woman is prone to naming items — she calls her wheelchair Sven because it has a Swedish manufacturer. She selected the name Hector for the APL arm because it has a hefty masculine look to it, she explains. It was only later that she learned one of the name’s meanings in Greek: “to grasp.” 



Fort Worth, Texas–based contributor CHARLOTTE HUFF is fascinated by mind-stretching advances in medicine. She’s written for ScientificAmerican.com, Arthritis Today and Parents.