A prosthetic arm that can not only restore movement but also a person’s sense of touch has been developed by the US military.
The robotic arm has already allowed a 28-year-old paralysed man to feel someone touching his ‘hand’ for the first time in more than a decade.
The technology mirrors that seen in the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker is given a robotic prosthetic arm that restores his ability to feel.
It works by using a tiny array of electrodes that have been implanted into the sensory cortex of the man – who has only been identified as Nathan.
Force sensors in the robotic hand provide feedback that is converted into a tiny electrical signal and transmitted into Nathan’s brain.
The electrodes can also detect electrical signals from his brain. This allows him to not only control the hand’s movements but to feel what the mechanical fingers are touching.
The technology has been developed by scientists at the University of Miami and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa.
Dr Justin Sanchez, who has been leading the project, unveiled the ‘feeling prosthetic hand’ at Darpa’s Wait What? conference in St Louis, Missouri.
He said ‘Using advanced technologies that translate the forces applied to the fingertips of the robotic hand into electrical signals that could be used to directly stimulate the sensory neurons in the brain, Nathan was able to sense and feel what the robotic hand was touching using only his brain.
‘Through neurotechnology we’re opening up entirely new worlds of experience and independence.’
Neural technologies are being developed by Darpa under its Revolutionising Prosthetics program that aims to help people who have lost limbs or are paralysed.
It uses microarrays of electrodes that can be implanted into the brains of volunteers to pick up tiny electrical pulses from the neurons.
This allows them to control robotic arms with near natural thoughts, allowing them to shake hands or even fist bump.
To take the technology further Dr Sanchez decided to use the electrodes to produce tiny electrical signals to the sensory cortex to simulate the sense of touch.
Nathan, who was paralysed after suffering a spinal cord injury, is the first person to be fitted with the technology.
Dr Sanchez said: ‘Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by thoughts are showing great promise, but without feedback from signals traveling back to the brain it can be difficult to achieve the level of control needed to perform precise movements.
‘By wiring a sense of touch from a mechanical hand directly into the brain, this work shows the potential for seamless bio-technological restoration of near-natural function.’
Tests with Nathan have shown that he can identify which fingers of the robot are being touched by researchers even when he is blindfolded.
Dr Sanchez said: ‘At one point, instead of pressing one finger, the team decided to press two without telling him.
‘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.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3234218/Luke-Skywalker-s-prosthetic-arm-REAL-Robotic-limb-allows-patients-feel-touches-microchip-brain.html#ixzz3llBA7AJS
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