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Thought-Controlled Robotic Arm Offers New Hope to the Seriously Injured

News that a quadriplegic man has become the first patient to have a neuro-prosthetic device implanted in his brain, allowing him to control a remarkable robotic arm by thought, gives hope to people who have suffered serious injuries.

The 34-year-old California man – who was shot in the back 13 years ago and left instantly paralysed from the neck down - has become the first person to be able to control a robotic arm through electrodes surgically implanted into his brain.

The mind-controlled limb was built for him by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) who implanted the chips into the man’s posterior parietal cortex (PPC) - the part of the brain that plans movements.

This means that, when he wishes to do something, he has to specifically think about the particular action he wants to perform. Although this might sound relatively straightforward, repeated practice is the only way of mastering the new technology.

The father-of-two can now use the robotic arm to drink from a bottle using a straw, perform a hand-shake gesture and play ‘rock, paper, scissors’ – an action which took him 6,700 individual attempts to perfect.

These may seem like minor actions but to someone who has been paralysed for more than a decade, they represent a huge personal landmark as well as a massive advance in medical technology.

For some time now, it has been possible to connect nerves in the arm to prosthetic limbs so they can be controlled by thought. The Slater and Gordon Clinical Negligence team have been able to obtain ‘myoelectric’ prostheses for people who have had their arms amputated as a result of negligent medical mistakes. However, these are patients whose spinal cords are still intact. Connecting prostheses directly to a specific part of the brain is an incredibly significant step forward.

Although this kind of technology is at the very early stages, the science is being refined to enable finer motor skills. Having already seen significant advances with other forms of prostheses in recent years, it will hopefully not be long before we can enable clients who have suffered amputations or paralysis to obtain these new robotic arms.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers act for a number of people who have suffered brain injuries, or who have lost limbs or been paralysed as a result of accidents or negligent medical mistakes.

Our aim in recovering damages for such clients is to restore them to the position they would have been had it not been for their accident. Whilst in some ways that is clearly an impossible task – no one can give an amputee their limb back – we can often find ways to give clients the maximum independence achievable and enable them to perform tasks they could do without thinking, before their accident.

Obtaining the best technology is an important part of that process and Slater and Gordon Lawyers work with a range of specialists to ensure the best possible provision for our clients. This already includes some very high-quality prostheses and we very much look forward to enabling our clients to use these new thought-controlled arms.

Paul Sankey is a Senior Clinical and Medical Negligence Solicitor leading the Slater and Gordon Lawyers Clinical Negligence team in London.

Our Hospital Negligence Solicitors can provide immediate legal representation and rehabilitation support anywhere in England, Scotland and Wales and offer hospital and home visits for people who cannot attend one of our offices.

Call us for a free consultation on 0800 916 9049 or contact us online.

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