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A Paralyzed Woman Operated a Flight Simulator Using Only Her Thoughts

Electrodes implanted in the brain are shown to enable those with quadriplegia to achieve amazing feats

(Erik Tham/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

It might not be telekinesis, but its effects are pretty dang close.

Jan Scheuermann, who has suffered from quadriplegia since 2003 due to spinocerebellar degeneration, cruised the artificial skies of a flight simulator using only her own mind to direct the plane’s movement. The computer-based adventure was made possible by a groundbreaking study in which electrode grids were surgically implanted in her brain to allow her to intricately move robotic arms just by thinking about it.

As the Washington Post reports, a director over at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which conducted the study, recently revealed Scheuermann and the research team’s creative use of the neurosignaling technology.

"Jan decided that she wanted to try flying a Joint Strike Fighter simulator," Arati Prabhakar said at New America Foundation's Future of War forum. "So Jan got to fly in the simulator."

As the Post outlines, “Unlike pilots who use the simulator technology for training, Scheuermann wasn't thinking about controlling the plane with a joystick.” Instead, she just thought about flying the F-35 and a single-engine Cessna planes in the simulations, and away they went on the screen.

This accomplishment was just one of many demonstrated during the two year study that aimed to further develop brain-computer interface technology to help those who cannot use their arms. Researchers first made big waves when they demonstrated that Scheuermann could use her mind to direct a robotic arm and hand to make even relatively intricate movements. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which conducted the study in conjunction with DARPA, explains:

Each electrode point [implanted in the brain] picked up signals from an individual neuron, which were then relayed to a computer to identify the firing patterns associated with particular observed or imagined movements, such as raising or lowering the arm, or turning the wrist. That “mind-reading” was used to direct the movements of a prosthetic arm developed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The study is exciting news for the future of medicine, particularly for those with quadriplegia. But as with many great discoveries, there are also has some less sunny, super-villain-endorsed implications. 

"In doing that work, we can now see the future where we can free the brain from the limitations of the human body," the Post quoted Prabhakar saying. "We can only imagine amazing good things and amazing potentially bad things that are on the other side of that door."

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