For 13 years, Erik Sorto dealt with the paralysis. It all began when he was shot in the back, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Today? He’s sipping on a beer thanks to two silicon chip implants in his brain and a robotic arm.
Sorto still can’t move his arms and legs, but the neural implants allow him to control a robotic arm with his thoughts. First thought? It’s time for a cold one. Yeah, the man deserves a drink after 13 years.
A team from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University developed the robotic arm and the neural chips were developed at the University of Utah. Sorto then learned the ins and outs of the two tools at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehab Center in Downey, CA.
What does he think about the technology?
“That was amazing,” Mr. Sorto said. “I was waiting for that for 13 years, to drink a beer by myself.”
The entirety of the research was led by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. Their work with Erik Sorto was published yesterday in the journal Science.
Using his thoughts, he was able to get the neural implants to send signals via wires to a prosthetic arm on a nearby table. The eureka moment? Grabbing a cold one.
Linking Humans and Machines
While encouraging, clinical applications of the technology is still up to a decade away according to researchers. For now, progress has been limited to lab animals and the handful of human volunteers.
Future development will be tied towards miniaturization, wireless use and abilities that return function to paralyzed patients.
Already, brain-controlled prosthetics are being developed at the best Universities. Caltech, Brown and Duke are racing towards developing systems that allow rudimentary command over prosthetic devices.
In 2012, the University of Pittsburgh developed a brain implant allowing a paralyzed woman to eat a chocolate bar via a robotic arm.
The steps may seem small, but the impacts are immeasurable. Each time a patient suffering from paralysis can use the implant, it gives researchers large amounts of data to refine and update the chips.
Today, it was a can of beer. Tomorrow? Someone like Mr. Sorto might be next to you in the store picking up a case of beer.