February 19, 2021

Detroit Free Press: ALS Patient Builds Robot to Feed Himself

Matt McKeown, a patient in the Michigan Medicine Pranger ALS Clinic, built his own robot to feed himself. Watch a video of the robot in action and read the feature story about him.

Miriam Marini, Detroit Free Press

Matt McKeown's robot in action.

With the flick of a switch, it comes to life.

The aluminum robotic arm, situated on a dining room table and armed with a spoon, lifts itself above the bowl then swoops down in one fell motion and scoops up a potato and comes to a stop, waiting for Matt McKeown to lean down and bite.

Simply said, McKeown, 39, is a matter-of-fact, solution-driven man. When describing the first twitches and involuntary clenching, his narration is unencumbered by emotion as he details the series of signs that led him to doctors.

“The first time was a muscle twitch in my left shoulder,” said McKeown, recalling back to July 2017. In about a month, the twitches spread to his entire arm, “they’re kind of intermittent almost like the way fireflies light up, just kind of here, there, everywhere, my twitches are just like that.”

It took another couple of months, when his left hand involuntarily closed during a yawn, for McKeown to reach out to his doctor.

Getting diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly referred to as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a lengthy process. Because there is no singular test for the neurodegenerative disease, doctors essentially test for other diseases and if all yield negative results, then an ALS diagnosis is typically the answer.

Matt McKeown's robot in action, reverse angle

ALS, which is usually fatal in two to five years, affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing people to lose their ability to control their limbs and their speech.