23 May 2015

Brain implant hailed as breakthrough

1:12 pm on 23 May 2015

A new kind of brain implant that can sense a patient's intent to move a robotic arm is being hailed as a breakthrough in harnessing mind power.

The hope is that it will help people who are paralysed gain more independence.

Erik Sorto uses a robotic arm controlled by his thoughts to operate a blender.

Erik Sorto uses a robotic arm controlled by his thoughts to operate a blender. Photo: AFP / SPENCER KELLIS

A study in Science has reported on the technology, which uses electrodes implanted in the brain to transmit signals to a computer and translate those signals into instructions for a robotic arm.

An MRI scan is used to target the right location to implant the device.

An MRI scan is used to target the right location to implant the device. Photo: Handout / CALTECH / AFP

For people like Erik Sorto, who was left paralysed from the neck down when he was shot in the back more than a decade ago, it means he is finally able to drink a beverage by himself.

"That was amazing. I was waiting for that for 13 years, to drink a beer by myself," he said.

"But I'm sure everybody can relate to that, like a lot of people can just imagine how it would feel after 13 years to drink a beer by yourself and not have someone assist you or be asking, 'can I have a drink, can I have a drink?'"

The new brain implant means the 34-year-old Californian can now make a hand-shaking gesture, grab a cup to drink from and even play the rock, paper, scissors game with his robotic arm.

The father-of-two said he had begun by identifying what task he wanted to perform.

"And then I start thinking about the robotic arm, I close my eyes, and I start imagining the robotic arm and what I want it to do," he said.

In the last decade, several people outfitted with brain implants have used their minds to steer prosthetic limbs, but Mr Sorto has become the first person to have a neural prosthetic device implanted in a region of the brain where intentions are made.

Still early days

California Institute of Technology neuroscientist Richard Andersen led the study.

"What was different about this study and advance was that we decoded or could read out his imagined movements and these imagined movements comprise his plan or intent," he said.

Previous neural brain implants targeted a region of the brain known as the motor cortex, which controls movement.

While those patients could also control a robotic limb, movement was delayed and jerky.

The new trial concentrated on a different area of the brain - the posterior parietal cortex which allows for smoother movements.

This part of the brain processes the planning of movements, rather than the details of how movements are executed, Dr Andersen said.

"This is an alternative to using motor cortex to try to work out those details directly from the brain," he said.

"So in that case, by indicating the goal, say I wanted to pick up this glass of water, you don't need to specify a lot of details about the movement."

But he said the latest discovery was still early days in an evolving field and further research may use brain implants to target other parts of the brain.

"One possibility would be to go to a language area and decode their language thoughts," Dr Andersen said.

"I think it's an important step and it's a very rapidly evolving field."

Mr Sorto said for now, besides having the odd beer, he was looking forward to grooming himself and brushing his teeth.

"It's basically giving me so much hope and so much happiness just to see, that some kind of hope out there for us."

-ABC

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs