Quadriplegic man controls robot arm with his mind

Sorto is one of a few people who have been given brain implants to help move objects with their minds since 2006

Eric Sorto using the robotic arm to take drinks

Since after a gunshot wound rendered him quadriplegic 13 years ago, Erik Sorto has been unable to move his arms or legs for the last decade.

But since scientists implanted chips into his brain three years ago, he's been able to move a robotic arm — to shake hands; play rock, paper, scissors; and yes, drink beer, says a study in the journal Science.

"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," Sorto says in a statement from the California Institute of Technology. "I really miss that independence."

Sorto is one of a few people who have been given brain implants to help move objects with their minds since 2006, when a paralyzed man named Matthew Nagle moved a cursor on a computer using only his thoughts.  Scientists have been trying to refine the process to benefit other paralyzed patients, since then. Today's study differs from most previous research in the area of the brain researchers targeted for implants — and may lead to better control for patients.

"If we can indicate the goal, we can have smooth, natural movements toward the goal," Andersen says. The first time Sorto tried to control a robotic arm, 16 days after surgery, he pantomimed a handshake with a researcher. "It was the first time he'd moved a limb in 10 years," Andersen says. "It was amazing for him."

Andersen's group has implanted chips in two more patients, and will be exploring the technique much further, in the hopes of creating better and more refined touch feedback. Maybe moving objects or playing video games with your mind isn't going to be routine any time soon — but for patients like Sorto, the benefits go beyond drinking his own beer. The study has given him a sense of purpose.

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