A Better Way for Brains to Control Robotic Arms

A brain implant reads a paraplegic man’s intentions to let him pick up a beer

4 min read
A Better Way for Brains to Control Robotic Arms
Photo: Spencer Kellis & Christian Klaes/Caltech

/img/HRBMIErikSorto-1434464857340.jpgCheers! Erik Sorto uses a brain-controlled robotic arm to take a drink. “It gives me great pleasure to be part of the solution for improving paralyzed patients’ lives,” he says.Photo: Spencer Kellis & Christian Klaes/Caltech

Erik Sorto had been paralyzed for 10 years when hevolunteered for a bold neural engineering experiment: He would receive a brain implant and try to use the signals it recorded to control a robotic arm. Erik had no qualms about signing up for brain surgery, but his mother wasn’t happy about it. “She was just being a mom,” Sorto says with a smile. “She was like, ‘Your brain is the only part of your body that works just fine. Why would you mess with that?’ ”

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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