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Monday, January 14, 2013

Meet Jan Scheuermann, A Writer Who Really Uses Her Head

It is with great pleasure that I share this post from a recent Baldwin-Whitehall Patch with all of you. Jan is my cousin and not only a storyteller, but an amazing story herself.  Though the article ran before Jan appeared on 60 Minutes this past December 30, all of the rest of the information is current and, well, amazing.

Editor Robert Edward Healy, III robert.healyiii@patch.com

Jan Scheuermann has killed more than 250 people—and gotten away with it. But that's not what makes her extraordinary.

No, it's Scheuermann's ability to move objects by using only her mind that makes her life so incredible.

OK, so neither of those statements are entirely true, but Scheuermann, 53—a south Baldwin Borough native, one-time Californian and current Whitehall Borough resident—is well on her way, at least with the mental capabilities. Though, she'd love to get back to killing soon.

You see: It used to be Scheuermann's ability as a fiction writer and murder-mystery-parties host that was her claim to fame, first in south Baldwin and then later in California. And she'd like to write some more. But whether she's ready or not, this 1977 graduate of the now-defunct Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic High School on Route 51 in Baldwin is making international news as the subject of a groundbreaking brain-computer interface study, the findings of which were recently published in the British medical journal The Lancet.

And very soon—perhaps Sunday—Scheuermann's study will be featured on an episode of CBS' "60 Minutes."


Truthfully, it's a robotic arm that Scheuermann has been using to move objects, but the amazing catch is that the arm is remote-controlled only by Scheuermann and only by her thinking of where she wants the arm to go.

Appearing at a feel-good press conference on Monday morning at UPMC Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh's West Oakland neighborhood, Scheuermann showed off her personality and her gift for storytelling by describing how "Hector"—the name that she gave the robot—allowed her to feed herself chocolate for the first time in 10 years.

Stationed alongside doctors and researchers from UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh as well as earlier research participant Tim Hemmes of Butler County, Scheuermann also explained how her disorder—spinocerebellar degeneration—which came onto her suddenly in the mid-1990s after she had started a family with her husband in California, does not define her.

As she told Monday's crowd at the start of the press conference through a pre-recorded video, "I've always said, 'Except for this walking thing, I'm in great health.'"

For fear of, frankly, dying far away from her Pittsburgh relatives, Scheuermann moved to a Whitehall home in the late '90s and has remained there since. And in an odd way, despite the disorder that has claimed the use of everything below her neck, she almost seems to have never been happier.

"I think I'm very blessed that this (study) came into my life," she said during Monday's conference. "In this role, to be able to give something to society—to science, to medicine—is very, very personally fulfilling. I feel like I get much more out of the study than the study gets out of me."

Scheuermann has also shown the ability to keep things in remarkable perspective. Before the press conference, she told WPXI's Jennifer Abney, "Some people are sadder people. Be a thankful person. I don't have my legs; I have my brain. I'd rather have my brain."

As part of the BCI study, UPMC neurosurgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, M.D., Ph.D., placed two quarter-inch, square electrode grids with 96 tiny contact points each in the regions of Scheuermann's brain that would normally control her right arm and right hand movement.

The electrode points pick up signals from individual neurons, and computer algorithms are used to identify the firing patterns associated with particular observed or imagined movements, such as raising or lowering one's arm and turning one's wrist, explained lead research investigator Jennifer Collinger, Ph.D., in a news release. That intent to move is then translated into actual movement of the robotic arm, which was developed by The Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

Two days after the electrode grids operation on Scheuermann, a UPMC research team hooked up a computer to two terminals that protrude from her skull.

"We could actually see the neurons fire on the computer screen when she thought about closing her hand," Dr. Collinger said in the release. "When she stopped, they stopped firing, so we thought, 'This is really going to work.'"

Within a week, Scheuermann could reach in and out, left and right, and up and down with "Hector," giving her three-dimensional control that had her high-fiving with the researchers.

Coincidentally but very fittingly, Scheuermann learned later that "Hector" means "to grasp."

"It just looked like a 'Hector' to me," she said with a sense of humor all her own.

Before three months had passed, Scheuermann added to her arsenal by flexing Hector's wrist back and forth, moving it from side to side, and rotating it clockwise and counterclockwise.

She was also able to grip objects, which led to the best moment for Scheuermann so far—feeding herself chocolate.

And that gripping, combined with everything else that Scheuermann has been able to help the research team to achieve, may lead to even better things for other quadraplegics.

"We are learning so much about how the brain controls motor activity, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our trial participants," senior investigator Michael Boninger, M.D., said in a news release. "Perhaps in five to 10 years, we will have a device that can be used in the day-to-day lives of people who are not able to use their own arms."

The next step for BCI technology will likely be a two-way electrode system that would not only capture the intention to move but also stimulate the brain to generate sensation, potentially allowing a user to adjust grip strength to firmly hold a doorknob or to gently cradle an egg.

After that, "We're hoping this can become a fully implanted, wireless system that people can actually use in their homes without our supervision," Collinger said. "It might even be possible to combine brain control with a device that directly stimulates muscles to restore movement of the individual's own limb."

As Scheuermann said after taking her memorable bite, "One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI."



  1. What a wonderful article about an amazing woman! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Glad you enjoyed her story - her story on 60 Minutes amazed me all over again - how brave to let someone open up your brain!

  3. Amazing story, Andrea. When I first injured my spinal cord, 1983, I was told there was no hope for repair, no hope I would ever walk again. I still hold my breath that someday, a technology such as this will help me to recover what I lost after my accident.