A pioneer in the field of mind-controlled prosthetics, Jan Scheuermann, 55, is a quadriplegic on a mission to make the world a better place. She volunteered to be part of a groundbreaking research project to get people with paralysis to move prosthetic limbs using their minds, and she’s been making international news in the process.
Jan’s journey without question is one for the history books, and even though the research she’s taking part in is poised to help millions, it likely will never be able to directly improve her own life. And she’s totally ok with that.
Jan’s main hope is that the research leads to big time discoveries to truly help people with spinal cord injuries be more independent. Read on for her truly selfless and fascinating story.
Why she’s fearless
In the 1990s long before Jan was disabled, Jan was a 30 something wife and mother to two daughters living in California. She was also running a murder mystery production company called “Deadly Affairs.” Her life was more than full.
But in 1996, she began to experience mysterious leg weakness that made her feel like her legs were dragging. She knew it was more serious than just tired muscles. Jan was eventually diagnosed with spinocerebellar degeneration, an autoimmune disorder.
Two years later, she moved back home to Pittsburgh and within those two years Jan had lost all leg movement. In four years time, she lost all movement from the neck down. This was without a doubt one of the most significant changes in Jan’s life.
Transitioning to such a limited life can be difficult, which is why Jan was excited to take part in the “Hector Project;” a research project taking place at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. After hearing about it online, she called and before she knew it she was part of the program.
In early 2012, she first had two implants inserted into the top of her head, which she called “Lewis and Clark.” These contained 100 electrodes and were put in the cortex of the brain controlling movement. These electrodes were amazingly able to read her brain signals and send them to the prosthetic arm which on a whim she randomly named “Hector” (and turns out to mean “to grasp”).
In the beginning, Jan was able to move the arm up and down right away quite easily, and within a few months she was able to move the wrist and grasp the hand. Her ultimate goal – to feed herself chocolate, which she was able to do a year into the research.
These findings from the University of Pittsburgh are the first of its kind, and it’s been all over the news, from the Daily Mail to 60 Minutes. They were also published in the Journal of Neural Engineering in late 2014.
In October 2014, Jan’s journey with “Hector the Robotic Arm” came to a close when she had the electrodes “Lewis and Clark” removed from her brain. A bittersweet end, Jan understands the research had reached its arc, but she still has plans to further its purpose.
Speaking to elementary schools and beyond both in person and via Skype, Jan plans to talk about her experiences with Hector for years to come. She knows the more she’s out there speaking on this important technology, the faster it can move from research the clinical applications, which we can all agree is the ultimate goal.
Let’s hope we see more of this amazing tech applied in our lifetimes. One can hope!
Could you be a lab rat like Jan?
Watch the videos!