Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh

University of Pittsburgh researchers play a leading role in a White House conference, co-hosted by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, on the future of innovation.

From the Exhibition Hall: Brain Trust

“Anybody who said we couldn’t do it wasn’t invited back,” Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, an MD/PhD neurosurgeon at Pitt, explained to me at the Frontiers Conference Exhibit Hall. She’s part of the “Restoring Movement and Touch with Brain Interfaces” exhibit, where they’re demonstrating perhaps the coolest technology in the hall.

Around 2007, Tyler-Kabara, Andrew Schwartz, Jen Collinger, and others at Pitt were plotting an ambitious project—controlling a robotic arm with only the mind.

You may have seen the video on 60 Minutes: a woman with quadraplegia, Jan Scheuermann, dressed in red and reclined in a lab chair, manipulates a black, jointed arm, seemingly like magic.

Two little squares implanted in the brain’s motor cortex send electrical impulses that allow her to move the hand, feel pressure, and sense objects.

The electrode and mock brain.

Her goal was to eat a chocolate bar, which she indeed did.

At the Exhibit Hall, Tyler-Kabara demonstrates with the arm, sans participant (a person with the implants will be in later today). Push a finger gently, and a few things happen:

A mock brain sitting on a table nearby lights up—green, orange, yellow—depending on how hard Tyler-Kabara pushes. On a screen just in front of the hand, a grid of multicolored squiggles jumps to life. Next to the squiggles on-screen, a specialized checkerboard illuminates as well. The squiggles are individual neurons dancing to the touch, and the colored squares show how much current is being delivered to the brain. The pulse of electrodes forces neurons to become active, and hence Scheuermann can control the arm. The pressure the patient feels is never painful; researcher Rob Gaunt describes it as tingles, buzzes, pressure.  All that data helps the Pitt team refine their model. (See above photo for Pitt Tonight's Jesse Irwin and Tyler-Kabara for an idea of the system setup.)

Right now, the electrodes that power the system are plugged in through the patient's skull; the next step is smaller electrode implants, called CerePlex, that will come through a less obtrusive spot on the clavicle instead. Eventually, the whole thing will be wireless. 

If you stop by this exhibit today, prepare to be wowed. 

—Robyn K. Coggins

More on the Brain Computer Interface here.