Mind-controlled robotic arm helps paralyzed patients 'feel'

Read any science fiction and you’ll know that robots themselves can’t feel. But in a paper published this week from the University of Pittsburgh, researchers have shown that a mind-controlled robotic arm can help paralyzed patients regain sensation in their limbs.

Using a brain-computer interface, which has been shown to give patients the ability to move robotic extensions in past experiments by this UPitt team and others, is important for allowing a person to perform simple functions. But with this new technology, the arm can interact with its environment in ways comparable to a human arm, notably allowing the operator to "feel" pressure in the form of an electronic stimulus.

The robotic arm, developed at Johns Hopkins with a control system from Blackrock Microsystems, not only receives outputs from the brain, but it sends them back to a microelectrode array implanted in the brain’s sensory cortex. The arrays are dime-sized and placed in the regions where the patient would feel from areas on his or her hand.

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"The most important result in this study is that microstimulation of sensory cortex can elicit natural sensation instead of tingling," study co-author Andrew Schwartz said. "This stimulation is safe, and the evoked sensations are stable over months. There is still a lot of research that needs to be carried out to better understand the stimulation patterns needed to help patients make better movements."

Test patient Nathan Copeland, who has a spinal cord injury leaving him quadriplegic, explained what it’s like to have the implants in place:

"I can feel just about every finger--it's a really weird sensation," Mr. Copeland said about a month after surgery. "Sometimes it feels electrical and sometimes its pressure, but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision. It feels like my fingers are getting touched or pushed."