Mind-Controlled Robotic Arm Helps Paralyzed Man Drink Beer, Make Smoothies

Spencer Kellis
Spencer Kellis / Spencer Kellis

After more than a decade, Erik Sorto can finally sit back, relax, and have a cold one—by using mind control. A bullet wound severed 32-year-old Sorto’s spinal cord 12 years ago, and he has been paralyzed from the neck down ever since. Recently, scientists at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California fitted Sorto with a robotic arm. Sorto successfully controlled that arm with his mind, picking up a beer bottle with it and drinking from a straw at his own pace—no caregiver required. 

In 2013, a USC surgical team implanted penny-sized grids of electrodes in Sorto’s brain to record the signals from his posterior parietal cortex, a part of the brain that helps plan actions. Researchers mapped the electric signals that fired when Sorto watched a robotic arm moving and imagined he was controlling it, allowing them to create an algorithm that would be able to decipher his intentions. For two years, Sorto worked at controlling the robotic arm with his mind, spending multiple hours a day at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. The research is described in this week’s issue of the journal Science

The process isn’t perfect. "Some days we ended up with neurons that were better at enabling him to control things, and other days we would end up with neurons that were less good,” Tyson Aflalo, one of the lead engineers on the project, told the Los Angeles Times. But Sorto can now use his mind to point the arm in different directions, use it to make art, pick up beer bottles and other items, and make smoothies. 

And what is science for if not to enable us to drink delicious beverages at will?

[h/t: Los Angeles Times]