Erik Sorto’s first attempt to drink beer was a classic fail. ”I dumped it the first time because I lost concentration because I was so excited,” he said.
Sorto, who is paralyzed from the neck down, is the first patient to try a new type of brain implant that lets him control a robotic arm using the part of his brain that signals intent. He’s one of a handful of people with these tiny neural implants — devices that doctors hope will eventually allow many patients to control machines with thought alone.
Other patients have controlled machines with their thoughts — notably Jan Scheuermann, who’s been testing a device at the University of Pittsburgh and who first used her robotic arm to eat chocolate.
What’s different about Sorto, besides the fact that he chose beer over chocolate, is where the implants are. They’re in the part of the brain that controls intent, found in the posterior parietal cortex, rather than the parts that control movement.
"The movement can be extremely fast.”
The hope is that it will be easier and quicker to use the device, says Dr. Richard Andersen, the professor of neuroscience at Caltech who led the study. “It does seem to be very intuitive,” Andersen told NBC News.
There wasn’t much of a learning curve at all, the team reports in the journal Science. Sorto says he dropped the beer only once. “I can drink one myself now with no problems,” he said.
“Sixteen days after the surgery he was able to make handshake-like movements,” Andersen added.
"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,” Andersen said in a statement.
“For example, 'I want to pick up that cup of water. 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 a myriad components."
The trick was to find the areas upstream in the brain that control the areas that control movement. “It requires fewer neurons,” Andersen said. “The movement can be extremely fast.”
Sorto has tiny electrodes floating on the cortex of his brain — the thin, wrinkly sheet that wraps around the rest of the brain.
“Since you can only implant the implant once, you just know the right area to put it in and the right depth,” Andersen said. “So you pop it in and then you hope for the best.”
Sorto, 34, has been paralyzed since he was shot at 21. He’s a well-known figure in east Los Angeles, happy to share his story about how being involved with a gang in his youth got him ambushed, shot and paralyzed.
“The less I concentrate, the more I am able to do the task."
He says the device is not completely simple to use. “I have to think out the whole process, which is: reach out, grab the cup, bring it to my mouth and drink out of it,” he told NBC News.
But, just like a golf swing, thinking less can make it work better. “The less I concentrate, the more I am able to do the task,” he said.
Sorto will test the device for three years. He has one more year to go. Then he'll have to give it up until it’s commercially available. The Food and Drug Administration will have to review and okay development and wider use of the device. He knows that will be hard.
For the future, his ambitions go far beyond beer. “If we get FDA approval, I am going to try and brush my teeth,” he said.