Thirteen years after becoming paralyzed, Erik Sorto was finally able to grab his own bear. Brain sensing technology allowed Eric to control a robotic arm by his mind.
A gunshot would had left Sorto paralyzed from the neck down while he was still 21 years old.
Back in 2013, Sorto underwent a five-hour-long surgical procedure which allowed special neural chips to be implanted in the man’s posterior parietal cortex.
These sensors, due to their positioning, allowed Eric to control the robotic arm by sensing the electrical impulses running through that region. The man began imagining how he would move his arm, grasping and reaching while the neural chips recorded his brain’s electrical activity.
Slowly but surely, Sorto became the first person on the planet to have such a device implanted in his brain. Now, he is able to grab a beer, make hand-shaking gestures and even play rock-paper-scissors.
CALTECH researchers led by Tyson Aflalo and Richard Anderson recorded Sorto’s brain activity and used special software to translate that neural activity into actions by means of the robotic arm. According to Andersen, a normal though about arm movement doesn’t necessarily involve thinking about each individual muscle you are required to activate.
Neither are all the details of the movement. Your brain doesn’t process the action succession, such as lifting the arm, extending it, grasping, letting go. That’s precisely why such amazing advancements are possible. Thinking about the action itself allowed scientists to decode the intent and translate them into movement.
All they needed to do was to ask “the subject to simply imagine the movement as a whole, rather than breaking it down into a myriad components.”
Caltech’s creation is more advanced than any of its predecessors, though. It is capable of moving more freely, fluidly, as opposed to other robotic arms which often experience delays.
Granted, the process itself is a bit more complicated and small tasks often require Sorto to think of complex actions. Imagining himself whirling his arms or performing other curious tasks is required for the movement to be properly recorded.
“I really miss that independence. I think that if it were safe enough, I would really enjoy grooming myself,” Sorto said when asked about being able grasp his first beer in so long.
But these early trials are promising for a number of potential candidates who may, in the future, be eligible for similar procedures in order to improve other neurologic problems, such as ALS, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis or stroke.
Image Source: Science Mag