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Life Lessons: Making medical history

By Nancy Werteen, Anchor / Reporter, NWerteen@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 15 2013 04:00:00 AM CDT

Life Lessons making medical history

PITTSBURGH -

Jan Scheuermann was a 36-year-old married mother of two when she began to show symptoms of what doctors eventually diagnosed as a rare degenerative disease.

By 43, she was paralyzed from the neck down. Now, 10 years later, she is making medical history.

A seemingly simple task - taking a bite from a chocolate bar - but for Jan Scheuermann, it was just short of a miracle.

"After 10 years of not moving below the neck, I was causing something to move through space," says Jan Scheuermann from Pittsburgh, Pa.. "It was just so exciting, I can't tell you. I don't think they stopped me smiling for six months."

Scheuermann is moving a robotic arm by what researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center call BCI, brain-computer interface.

She thinks the movement and the arm responds. Surgeons implanted receptors in Jan's head where her motor functions originate.

A computer completes the connection between her thoughts and her movements.

As part of the BCI trial, Scheuermann spends four days a week in the lab.

Researchers continue to study the reaction time between Scheuermann's thoughts and the arm she calls Hector.

Scheuermann explains, "I just see the target and I say to myself go there, and the arm goes there. It's a very natural brain function."

Scheuermann also speaks to groups about her experience and the cutting edge science that is giving her hope, starting with middle school students at her hometown parish.

"The one little boy was like, 'she's like a superhero,' which I just loved that comment because she really is! She's doing things that nobody's done before," Medical Attendant Karina Palko says.

Scheuermann will continue in the trial for another year. Researchers call her work brave and selfless.

"She's really not getting any benefit out of the study for herself," says Jen Collinger, PhD, with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh.

"She's not able to take it home, but she's really just sort of giving of herself so then we can develop this technology for people down the road."

"Never give up hope," advises Scheuermann. "If you're in my situation or a similar situation, never give up hope."

Although Jan is the second person to use the robotic arm, clinical trials could start in a few years and UPMC researchers say the robotic arm could be available for quadriplegics to use at home within 10 years.