Mind-Controlled Robot Arm Lets Paralyzed Man Drink A Beer On His Own

05/23/2015 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

A man paralyzed for 13 years can finally have a drink on his own again, thanks to a robotic arm he’s able to control using his brain.

“I joke around with the guys that I want to be able to drink my own beer -- to be able to take a drink at my own pace, when I want to take a sip out of my beer and to not have to ask somebody to give it to me,” Erik Sorto, 34, said in a news release from the California Institute of Technology.

A gunshot wound when he was 21 left Sorto unable to move his arms or legs, ABC News reported. That has changed after a clinical trial that involved doctors surgically implanting a neuro-prosthetic device into the part of Sorto’s brain that controls his “intent to move,” Engadget explained.

The results of the trial, which was a collaboration of Caltech, Keck School of Medicine of USC and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, were published in the May 22 edition of Science journal.

Scientists have outfitted patients with brain-controlled devices in the past. One big difference, though, is that previous devices have worked with the brain’s motor cortex, which “generates the electrical signals that are sent down the spinal cord and control the contractions of every muscular movement,” The Guardian explained.

Sorto’s device was implanted into his posterior parietal cortex, or PPC, which deals with the “initial intent” to make a movement, rather than the specifics of each muscle group, according to Caltech.

"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,'" Dr. Richard Andersen, a Caltech neuroscience professor, said in the institution's statement. "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 myriad components."

This change can result in movements that are more fluid and natural than those created by earlier devices.

Dr. Mindy Aisen, chief medical officer and principal investigator of the Spinal Cord Injury Model System at Rancho, told ABC News that Sorto has learned to make smoothies and even paint pictures with the device.

She added that the technology offers a lot of hope for patients who have become “locked in” due to strokes, ALS and other conditions.

Sorto, who is still working with the technology, said in the Caltech statement that he hopes it allows him to one day be able to take care of his own hygiene needs.

“Shaving, brushing my own teeth. That would be fantastic,” he said.

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