Once a person who needed help to eat and thought his career was over, Jatich is now largely self-sufficient and has even begun an in-home business creating computerized engineering drawings. “I’m using my hand again. I’m picking up a fork to feed myself, and picking up a pen to write again,” says Jatich. “That’s a big emotional change in my life.”
In the process of developing Freehand, Peckham turned Cleveland into the world’s focal point for FES development. In 1990, he was instrumental in founding the Cleveland FES Center, a consortium of medical centers where researchers are now driving Freehand technology in new directions. Current projects include systems that allow paraplegics to stand and move a few steps on their own, research aimed at finer muscle movement using more electrodes, as well as what Peckham terms “alternative strategies for control” that can bring more natural dexterity to paralyzed people. The most dramatic of these alternatives is mind over matter: direct brain-control.
As early as the 1960s, scientists discovered that people can control certain components of the electrical signals emitted by their brains, which are recorded from the scalp as electroencephalograms (EEGs). EEGs could therefore be used to issue simple commands to electronic devices, but the technology remained largely a laboratory curiosity. It’s been explored by the Air Force as a futuristic means for pilots to fly jet planes, and has more recently found a concrete application in helping patients with severe paralysis to communicate via computer.
Starting in 1997, Peckham says he and graduate student Richard Lauer began attempting to use brain-computer interface technology to “acquire information from the brain and put it into the hand of a person.” Their initial subject was Jatich, who agreed to wear what looks like an oversized, electrode-studded shower cap to help the scientists learn whether EEG signals could control his Freehand system directly, without the usual shoulder controller.
Lauer and Peckham zeroed in on a component of the EEG known as the beta-rhythm, which Jatich began learning to modulate in order to move a cursor on a computer screen. Thanks to the phenomenon known as biofeedback, Jatich was able to use the cursor’s movements to gain conscious control over the strength of the beta-rhythm, even though he’d previously been completely unaware of it. After a dozen training sessions, Jatich had learned to move the cursor simply by thinking of a particular direction. The next step was to convert the cursor signal into a command for Jatich’s Freehand. The switch-over went smoothly: Jatich soon was opening his hand by thinking of moving the cursor up. By thinking down, he closed it. Since then, Jatich has learned to manipulate objects including a glass and a fork.
Dramatic as these results are, Peckham cautions that all Jatich is doing “is using the signal to tell his hand to close. It’s a very rudimentary control.” Indeed, thus far, EEG-control remains slower and less versatile than the shoulder controller. For instance, because the beta-rhythm provides only a single on/off signal, Jatich still can’t lock his hand into position-instead he’s got to continually think “hand closed.” “We’re saying pick up this fork, stab something and raise it to your mouth,” explains Peckham, “but if the task was eat a meal, which requires holding onto the fork for an extended period of time, we would not have the same level of success.”
Still, the initial results are “fairly promising,” says Bill Heetderks, a physician who directs the National Institutes of Health’s Neural Prosthesis Program, which, along with the Veteran’s Administration and the National Science Foundation, provides the majority of the grants that support FES and BCI research. As Heetderks points out, only about ten percent of quadriplegics have enough shoulder and arm movement to operate Freehand. He says EEG control might allow people with injuries higher on their spinal cords, like the actor Christopher Reeve, to benefit from neuroprosthetics as well.
Over the next year, says Peckham, his team will be trying to establish whether or not the EEG signal is good enough to give full movement to current Freehand users. Confident, yet cautious, Peckham notes, “We are not certain yet whether the control is, in fact, fast enough and natural enough.”