Brightening the Future through Brain-Controlled Bionics

Reprinted from DARPA
by Marine Cpl. Cedric R. Haller II

Ever since the first war ever recorded by human beings, paralyzation and amputation of extremities has been a common occurrence. The answer to this problem was usually found in the form of prosthetics or artificial limbs. The oldest documented prosthetic can be traced back to somewhere between 950 and 710 B.C. It was in the form of an artificial toe fashioned from wood and leather. Today, robotic prosthetic limbs are becoming increasingly common, and prosthetics technology continues to advance.

The University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, has developed a technology that allows someone to experience the sensation of touch directly in the brain through a neural interface system connected to a robotic arm.

Just imagine; an amputee being able to feel her spouse’s hands or perhaps even a quadriplegic being able to pet and feel the softness of his dog’s coat. Take Nathan Copeland, for example, who has had quadriplegia from the chest down since 2004.

Ten years after his accident he agreed to undergo surgery to have four microelectrode arrays placed in his brain, two in the motor cortex and two in the sensory cortex regions that correspond to feeling in his fingers and palm. The wires ran from the arrays to the robotic arm, which contains sophisticated torque sensors that detect when pressure is applied to its fingers, and converts these physical “sensations” into electrical signals that the wires carry back to the arrays in Nathan’s brain to provide precise patterns of stimulation to his sensory neurons according to DARPA.

“DARPA has previously demonstrated direct neural control of a robotic arm, and now we’ve completed the circuit, sending information from a robotic arm back to the brain,” said Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s biological technologies office and the program manager for Revolutionizing Prosthetics. “This new capability fundamentally changes the relationship between humans and machines.”

Researchers were able to successfully mimic the sensation of touch in the bionic arm to almost 100 percent accuracy.

“At one point, instead of pressing one finger, the team decided to press two without telling him,” Sanchez said. “He responded in jest asking whether somebody was trying to play a trick on him. That is when we knew that the feelings he was perceiving through the robotic hand were near-natural.”

The things the human mind is capable of are absolutely astonishing, to say the least. This technology has the potential to change the life of every single person whose life has been affected by amputation or paralyzation. Who knows just how far it will go?

Man Feels Sensations Through Robotic Arm

A research team funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency successfully demonstrated technology that allows an individual to experience the sensation of touch in the brain through a neural interface system connected to a robotic arm.

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