Using a groundbreaking new robotic arm, a 52-year-old woman paralysed from the neck down has been able to feed herself, and even give a high-five to doctors, with the help of electrodes implanted in her brain.

Jan Scheuermann was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder 13 years ago.

Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre were able to implant electrodes in her brain, so she could operate the advanced robotic arm.

For Scheuermann and a team of researchers, accomplishing these seemingly ordinary tasks demonstrated for the first time that a person with longstanding quadriplegia can manoeuvre a mind-controlled, human-like robot arm in seven dimensions (7D) to consistently perform many of the natural and complex motions of everyday life.

In a study published in The Lancet, researchers described the brain-computer interface (BCI) technology and training programs which allowed Scheuermann of Whitehall Borough in Pittsburgh to intentionally move an arm, turn and bend a wrist, and close a hand for the first time in nine years.

Spectacular leap

“This is a spectacular leap toward greater function and independence for people who are unable to move their own arms,” said investigator Andrew B. Schwartz in a statement.

“This technology, which interprets brain signals to guide a robotic arm, has enormous potential that we are continuing to explore. Our study has shown us that it is technically feasible to restore ability,” said Schwartz.

Progressively weakened

In 1996, Scheuermann was a 36-year-old mother of two young children. Within two years, her legs and arms progressively weakened to the point that she required a wheelchair, as well as an attendant to assist her with dressing, eating, bathing and day-to-day activities.

A friend pointed out an October 2011 video on another research study, in which a man who sustained a spinal cord injury that left him with quadriplegia, moved items on a computer screen and ultimately reached out with a robotic arm to touch his girlfriend.