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Brain implant senses intent to move robotic arm

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A neuroprosthetic device implanted in Erik Sorto’s brain allowed him to drink unaided for the first time in 13 years.

Researchers in the United States have developed a new kind of brain implant that helps patients move robotic arms.

Researchers said Thursday the brain implant offers new promise to disabled people with spinal injuries to seamlessly control robotic limbs or even entire body suits in the future.

The clinical trial of the neuroprosthetic device was done by a team from the California Institute of Technology, the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.

Erik Sorto, who has been paralyzed from the neck down for 13 years after a gunshot wound, is “the first person in the world to have a neural prosthetic device implanted in a region of the brain where intentions are made,” they said in an article published by the journal Science.

Researchers say the device enables the 34-year-old patient to make a hand-shaking gesture, grab a cup to drink from and even play “rock, paper, scissors” with his robotic arm.

Researchers had previously inserted implants in the motor cortex, which controls motion, to control prosthetics.

In the latest trial, however, they placed two micro-electrode arrays in “higher” brain region, called the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), which processes plans for movements including reach and grasp.

Richard Andersen, who led the trial at the California Institute of Technology, said, “When you move your arm, you really don’t think about which muscles to activate and the details of the movement – such as lift the arm, extend the arm, grasp the cup, close the hand around the cup, and so on. Instead, you think about the goal of the movement, for example, ‘I want to pick up that cup of water.’”

“So in this trial, we were successfully able to decode these actual intents, by asking the subject to simply imagine the movement as a whole, rather than breaking it down into a myriad of components,” he said.

Researchers surprised

Sorto’s ability to control the robotic arm in the laboratory after recovering from surgery surprised the researchers.

“It was a big surprise that the patient was able to control the limb on day one – the very first day he tried,” said Andersen. “This attests to how intuitive the control is when using PPC activity.”

The team also released a footage showing Sorto controlling a computer cursor, drinking a beverage and making a hand-shaking gesture with the arm.

“I was surprised at how easy it was,” said Sorto, a single father of two.

“I think that if it were safe enough, I would really enjoy grooming myself — shaving, brushing my own teeth. That would be fantastic,” he said.

“These very important early clinical trials could provide hope for patients with all sorts of neurologic problems that involve paralysis such as stroke, brain injury, ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and even multiple sclerosis,” said co-author Christianne Heck, an associate professor of neurology at the USC.


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