Man controls robotic arm with his mind Dr. Charles Y. Liu, left, a neurosurgeon at the University of Southern California, laughs with patient Erik Sorto in Pasadena, California (AP photos)
Man controls robotic arm with his mind

Assign to Google Classroom

A man paralyzed by a gunshot more than a decade ago can shake hands, drink and play "rock, paper, scissors" by controlling a robotic arm with his thoughts, researchers have reported.

Two years ago, doctors in California implanted a pair of tiny chips into the brain of Erik Sorto that decoded his thoughts to move the free-standing robotic arm. The 34-year-old has been working with researchers and occupational therapists to practice and fine-tune his movements.

It's the latest attempt at creating mind-controlled prosthetics to help disabled people gain more independence. In the last decade, several people outfitted with brain implants have used their minds to control a computer cursor or steer prosthetic limbs.

Here are some things to know about the new work, published by the journal Science:

Doctors at the University of Southern California implanted small chips into Sorto's brain during a five-hour surgery in 2013. The sensors recorded the electrical activity of about 100 brain cells as Sorto imagined reaching and grasping.

Researchers asked Sorto to think about what he wanted to do instead of breaking down the steps of the movements, said principal investigator Richard Andersen at the California Institute of Technology.

After weeks of imagining movements, Sorto trained with Caltech scientists and therapists at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center to move the robotic arm, starting with a handshake and graduating to more complicated tasks. The sensors relayed their signals to the arm, bypassing Sorto's damaged spinal cord.

Scientists have long strived to make robotic arms produce movements that are as natural as possible. Previous research targeted a region of the brain known as the motor cortex, which controls movement.

The latest work has zeroed in on a different area of the brain the posterior parietal cortex that's involved in the planning of movements. The hope is that this strategy will lead to smoother motions.

It's unclear whether the new approach is better because no side-by-side comparisons have been made yet, but it gives researchers a potential new target in the brain.

In 2012, a Massachusetts woman paralyzed for 15 years directed a robotic arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her lips. In another instance, a quadriplegic man in Pennsylvania used a robotic arm to give a high-five and stroke his girlfriend's hand.

Erik Sorto has a caregiver at home, but he goes to the rehab center several times a week to practice using the robotic arm.

Since suffering a gunshot wound 13 years ago, he longed to have a drink without help. The first time he tried with the prosthetic arm, he was so excited that he lost his concentration and caused the arm to spill the drink. On the second try, he directed the arm to pick up the bottle and bring it to his mouth where he sipped through a straw.

It tasted "like a little piece of heaven," Sorto said.

Despite progress in the last decade, hurdles remain before brain-controlled prosthetics can help paralyzed people in their daily lives.

Experts said computer programs must run faster to interpret brain signals and the brain implants must be more durable.

Currently, wire connections run from a patient's brain to outside the skull, increasing the risk of infections. Future systems need to be wireless and contained within the body like pacemakers, experts J. Andrew Pruszynski of Western University in Canada and Jorn Diedrichsen of University College London wrote in an accompanying editorial in Science.

Critical thinking challenge: Why did researchers implant chips in Eriks brain instead of his arm?

Assigned 17 times

  • 1GavinMa
    6/04/2015 - 05:47 p.m.

    The reason workers implanted chips into his brain was because your brain controls everything in your body, if you just stuck a bunch of chips into someone for no apparent reason and expect something to happen, then nothing will

  • dJ2001fluffy
    6/05/2015 - 08:42 a.m.

    Its amazing to hear that someone can control a robotic arm with their minds. I wonder if it hurt when they implied the chip in his brain. Now there could be more people like soto that could be able to have a bionic body parts.

  • DD2001basketball
    6/05/2015 - 08:43 a.m.

    They put the chips in his head because so that the brain can send signals to the arm to move. So when Erik tell the arm to do something, it will send the signal to the arm easily.

  • karenc1018
    6/05/2015 - 11:18 a.m.

    WOW that is so cool.... but not only that but its very helpful to the man himself and its incredible that he got a chip implanted to his mind that helps him control the bionic arm

  • TF000Music
    6/05/2015 - 01:00 p.m.

    They implanted the chip in his brain instead o his arm because if he thinks about what he wants to do with the arm, he can do it without programming or anything else

  • caoilinncrotty53
    6/05/2015 - 01:05 p.m.

    I think Erik is very brave. They implanted the chip in Erik's head because that sends out the signal for the arm to move. If you put it in the arm it can't get the signal from your mind, so it has to be on the brain. I hope this works well because it could really help people who can't move their arms to do daily activities.

  • Brandon1231-YYCA
    6/08/2015 - 05:37 p.m.

    I think that it is cool to have a man control an robotic arm with his mind. I'm pretty sure that it took a long time to build that arm, but it was worth it when it was done. I think that this man should be every happy after he got a new arm and is able to move it with just his mind. I think that having this kind of technology is cool because if everyone who has missing arms and legs, this can be a big game changer for them because then they don't have to physically move the arm, they can just mentally move the arm. I think that the person who created the arm is really smart and should make more of these.

    Critical thinking challenge: Why did researchers implant chips in Erik's brain instead of his arm? They put these chips in his head because if you put them in the arm, then you can't move the arm. They needed the brain power to move the arm. So that is why thy put the chips in his head.

  • DBritney-Cas
    6/16/2015 - 02:52 p.m.

    That's so cool. It just shows how far we have come in technology and medicine that we are able to do this. And this is just the beginning, imagine all the lives that can be helped through this research.

  • lyndonp-pyn
    9/25/2015 - 12:05 p.m.


Take the Quiz Leave a comment