Tim Hemmes ended up in a wheelchair seven years ago, after a motorcycle accident left him unable to use his body from the shoulders down. Since then he's been searching for a way get moving again, and he may have found it.
"This is something I've been waiting for, for a very long time," he says.
Tim joined a research team at the University of PIttsburgh where he became the first person with a spinal cord injury to control a device with his thoughts.
First, doctors conducted imaging tests to determine where Tim's brain processed signals for moving his right arm.
Then a surgeon opened up Tim's brain and implanted a tiny electrode grid on the area sending those signals.
Wires from the electrodes came out under Tim's neck and connected to a computer.
Tim explains, "what the grid was able to do would be take that information right from my brain send it down the wires into a computer, so basically the computer would be like my brain."
"What we asked him to do was imagine moving his arms think about moving his wrist or arm and then we would record the signal. We then took that signal and were able to decode it like you would a code," says Dr. Michael Boninger, M.D., director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. "By looking at the signals under each disc that was sitting on Tim's brain, we were able to then figure out a way to control the device."
Over the next four weeks, Tim and the team tested the technology. First, he learned how to use his brain to control the movement of a ball on a computer screen.
"We'd say 'hey Tim, try to think in such a way to get the ball to move' and when he realized is when he thought of extending his wrist for instance, the ball would come to the right. When he thought about raising his wrist it moved to the left," Dr. Boninger says.
Eventually Tim progressed to 3-D, moving the ball not only up and down , but back and forth in three dimensional space.
It was now time to move on to a new challenge, moving a robotic arm with his thoughts. Within hours, Tim learned to move the arm in all directions. That prompted a member of the team to reach out and the two high-fived--the first time Tim had touched anyone in seven years.
Then his girlfriend held out her hand. Tim remembers, "she was sitting right beside me and said, 'Baby, I want to hold your hand,' so she stood up there and kind of did the same thing and I just reached up to her and just finally got to her and just kind of pushed the palm of the hand to her hand and just kept pushing. I almost didn't want to let go."
A day later, federal safety regulations meant the surgeon had to remove the brain grid, and Tim's involvement in this reserach ended at least for a time.
He's now back to his old life. At home in Butler County, Tim plays with his pit bull Trinity and runs a rescue for the breed. He says he and volunteers have saved the lives of 14 dogs this year.
Tim hopes permanent implants someday allow him to hug his daughter. Right now, he's glad to take a break from the grueling study, but happy about a promise from researchers. He'll be first in line when the technology's ready for more permanent use.
"I honestly believe when this technology advances not only for spinal cord, anything neurological, MS, stroke, this could be huge," he says with a smile.
Dr Boninger and his team plan to continue their research and are looking for study participants.
For more information on the robotic arm project.