Scientists just made a major breakthrough that's going to help a lot of individuals with paralysis.

Researchers at Caltech have come up with a plan to help make usable robotic limbs a reality for people who are paralyzed.

For most of us, moving our arms and legs comes naturally. These movements, like nearly everything we do, begin in the brain.

Most people don't have to give much thought to these motions. Signals from the brain travel down the spinal cord to the limbs. That is, our brains send a signal down our spinal cords and into the legs to walk, and signals travel down the spinal cord and into the arms to help us grab or throw.


All clips via Caltech.

This is why people who experience severe injuries along the spinal cord are often fully or partially paralyzed.

For years, scientists have tried to give people with spinal injuries the ability to use robotic limbs.

The field is called neuroprosthetics and involves implanting electrodes into a person's brain. The brain's motion signals are transmitted to a computer, which then translates it into a command, sending the signal to the robotic arm or leg.

Most commonly, the implant has been placed into the motor cortex, the portion of the brain that controls motion.


Unfortunately, those signals haven't produced the results scientists were hoping for.

Because the motor cortex handles the mechanics of movement, and not the intent of movement, it results in the prosthetic moving with a delayed, jerky motion. An arm getting instructions to drink from a glass of water might spill some or all of it in the process.

This is because when we think about doing tasks like drinking from a cup or brushing our teeth, we don't think about each individual movement involved. Instead, we think about the action itself.

This video from Caltech explains a new approach that focuses less on the mechanics and more on the intent:

It turns out that it's all about location, location, location.

Caltech's new approach seeks to solve this problem by focusing on a different part of the brain.

This part of the brain is called the posterior parietal cortex, and its job is to envision an entire action, and from what their researchers have found, it might be the key to reducing the jerky, delayed motion.

So, with the implant in the motor cortex, a person would think this...


Refreshing!

And get this...

Very unhelpful, thank you, robot arm.

But with the implant in the posterior parietal cortex, a person would think this...

... and get this wonderful, smooth motion with absolutely no water spilling everywhere.

YAAAS, thank you, robot arm! Very helpful.

The team at Caltech put the theory to the test, placing the implant into a patient's posterior parietal cortex, and ... it totally worked.

Yes! The test subject was able to move the robotic arm using just the part of the brain that controls intent, was able to shake hands, and could even play "rock, paper, scissors" against another person.

In this game of "rock, paper, scissors," everyone's a winner.

Caltech's Professor Richard Andersen explains the test like this:

"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. 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 myriad components."

While it'll be a while before this technology makes its way to the public, this is a huge step forward — and one of the coolest advances in science and medicine happening now.

Heroes

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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