In November of last year, Jan Scheuermann did something she never thought she would do again: She fed herself a piece of chocolate. For the last decade Scheuermann, 54, has been a prisoner in her own body. She suffers from a mysterious degenerative disorder that attacks the nervous system, severing the connections between the brain and muscles. Now a quadriplegic, Scheuermann has no movement below her neck. She can’t move her limbs, let alone grasp, move, or hold anything. Until she’s hooked up to a brain-computer interface (BCI).
BCI is a technology that can plug in to neuronal activity in Scheuermann’s brain, interpret it, and translate the signals into action—specifically, moving a robotic arm that she calls “Hector” to grasp objects and bring them to her—as though it were a functional part of her body. Dr. Andrew Schwartz, one of the field’s pioneers, is testing the system in clinical trials run out of his lab at the University of Pittsburgh.