Health

Paralyzed man drinks first beer in 12 years by moving robotic arm with his brain

23.05.2015  |  22:57
Paralyzed man drinks first beer in 12 years by moving robotic arm with his brain

There haven’t been any huge advances in brain computer interfaces (BCIs) since quadriplegic Jan Scheuermann helped herself to a cup of coffee a few years ago using a robotic arm.

Today, Science magazinebrings us a fantastic new first. Not only did quadriplegic Erik Sorto just drink himself his first beer in twelve years, he demonstrated the ability to control the precise activity of single neurons in his brain with specific thoughts.

The implications of this — namely the ability to control entire complex remote actions with single glorified neurons — now drives the field into fascinating new territory. Neuroscience has arrived at a curious new place, were minion assemblies of dedicated neural assistants can be arbitrarily knighted on the fly apparently from scratch by the seemingly unaided will.

That is something that until now has been completely unheard of, at least in the human realm. Although both Jan’s and Erik’s implanted neural chips are virtually identical in form factor and function, meaningful control commands could only be extracted from Jan’s brain by pooling the activity of many neurons and doing some esoteric (and laggy) signal processing. The difference with the experiments done by Erik comes down to one thing: location. The electrode arrays used in Jan’s experiments were placed in the motor areas of the brain. By any measure, these areas in the mid-to-frontal cortical regions of the brain are logical first places to look for exploitable motor commands.

Nonetheless, there is ample reason to try to hit up some of the more posterior parts of the cortex. In these regions, neurons have a more intimate connection to stimuli, spatial perception, and abstract planning. The algorithms used to control the robotic arm based on the signals extracted by Erik’s implant were developed in Richard Anderson’s lab at Caltech. Anderson has been studying these more posterior areas in monkeys for decades, and probably knows more about what neurons in this area can do than anyone around. He has shown not only that spikes in posterior parietal cortex (PPC) neurons directly encode high-level features of many kinds of stimuli, but also encode plans for movement, and probably even more abstract cogitations like intents and goals.

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