Mind-Controlled Robot Arm Study Receives Award

Pittsburgh, April 18, 2013 -- A groundbreaking project underway at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC – in which a woman with quadriplegia took a bite of chocolate using a robot arm she controlled with her thoughts – has been selected to receive one of the Clinical Research Forum’s Annual Top 10 Clinical Research Achievement Awards.

The awards recognize research teams that, in 2012, published compelling examples of the scientific innovation that results from the nation’s investment in clinical research that can benefit human health and welfare, according to the Clinical Research Forum (CRF).

“There’s never been a moment in the history of biology that’s more optimistic for spectacular breakthroughs to happen. However, it will require strategic investments at a most difficult time in our history,” said William F. Crowley Jr., MD, CRF founder and past chairman and director of the Clinical Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “America is a world leader in biomedical research and if we are to retain that leadership role globally, we have to continue making these national investments.”

Jennifer Collinger, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R), Pitt School of Medicine, research scientist for the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System, and lead author of the brain computer interface study that was published in Lancet in December, will present the Pitt/UPMC team’s work today during the CRF annual meeting in Washington, DC.

“I’m thrilled that the CRF found our project worthy of this award,” Dr. Collinger said. “The team, which includes participant Jan Scheuermann, believes that the hard work we are doing now could one day help people with disabilities attain better function and greater independence.”

“This breakthrough will provide opportunities for paralyzed individuals to interact in meaningful ways with their environments by using brain commands to control dexterous robotic prosthetic limbs,” said Steven Reis, MD, associate vice chancellor for clinical research, Health Sciences, and director of the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Science Institute, who nominated the project for award consideration. “Also, it serves as a paradigm for high-impact translational research conducted by a multidisciplinary team.”

Co-authors of the paper included senior authors Andrew Schwartz, PhD, professor, Department of Neurobiology, and Michael Boninger, MD, professor and chair of PM&R and director of UPMC Rehabilitation Institute; UPMC neurosurgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, MD, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Neurological Surgery; Angus J. McMorland, PhD, and Meel Velliste, PhD, both of the Department of Neurobiology; and Brian Wodlinger, PhD, John E. Downey, and Wei Wang, PhD, of PM&R; and Doug Weber, PhD, of the Department of Bioengineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

Other awardees include scientists from the Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Pennsylvania, whose work appeared in top-tier journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, Science Translational Medicine, Blood, Nature and Cell. The projects were funded by federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Veterans Administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as many foundations and corporations.

“These achievements are beacons of hope that show what can be accomplished when our nation’s researchers are given the freedom and resources to tackle tough clinical problems,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. “The opportunities for advancing clinical research have never been better. So, we at NIH look forward to doing everything we can to light up more of these beacons for the millions who look to us for help.”

The Clinical Research Forum is an organization comprised of the nation’s most prestigious and acclaimed academic medical centers and healthcare systems whose goal is to sustain and expand a cadre of talented, well-trained clinical investigators at all stages of career development, and support nurturing environments and comprehensive research capabilities within academic institutions. Its mission is to provide leadership to the national clinical and translational research enterprise and promote understanding and support for clinical research and its impact on health.

For more information, please contact:
Gloria Kreps
Senior Director of Media Relations, UPMC News Bureau
Telephone: 412-586-9764