first_imgLosing control or feeling in your limbs is one of the most traumatic and emotionally draining injuries people can suffer. For years the holy grail of cybernetics research has been giving people back control over their own bodies, and we’ve taken yet another big step towards making that vision a reality.Nathan Copeland has been a quadriplegic since suffering a spinal cord injury in a crash ten years ago. A research group at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center thought that Copeland might be a good fit for radical new technology — a series of chips implanted directly into the brain that would allow him to feel with a robotic arm. While similar techniques have allowed other patients to remotely control a prosthetic arm, this is the first time that a patient has been able to both send signals with implants and receive touch-based feedback that mimics our own natural senses.The study that resulted, published in Science Translational Medicine, details the system the researchers used. Essentially two arrays of electrodes were implanted in Copeland’s brain and connected to a receiver attached to his skull. One of them is wired — literally — into Copeland’s motor cortex. This set allows him to send signals to a computer and then to a separate robotic arm just by thinking about it. With training Copeland has been able to pick up objects and use the prosthetic fingers with fine motor control.Even so, the team realized that one of the most important parts of using our hands is the feeling we get back when we interact with other things. When we grip a glass, we can tell how much force we’re using based on the sense of pressure we get from the glass. Without that, it’s much harder to be precise. So the team worked on rigging up a second array of prosthetics that connected to Copeland’s sensory cortex. With these, the team could not just pick up signals from the brain, but send them back as well.Like many of these sorts of procedures, it took months before Copeland saw the full effects. The brain is, as you might suspect, a really sensitive organ and it won’t just accept random jolts of electricity as anything in particular. So the team worked to gradually figure out the right level of power they needed to apply to make it work. And even then, it’s not quite perfect. Copeland says that some of the artificial fingers aren’t quite as sensitive as the others — suggesting that the placement of the electrodes is ever-so-slightly off. But still, the effects are stunning.Plus, right now we can’t work these devices directly into a patient’s existing physiology. All of this tech is external, connecting to a separate robotic arm — not the patient’s original, natural one. As such, it’s far from a perfect solution, but it’s one of the biggest and most important steps we’ve taken towards having perfect prosthetic replacements for our actual limbs.In the video Copeland references Star Wars, saying, “Luke Skywalker got his hand chopped off, and the next day he has a robot one. And they’re pricking it, and he’s like, ‘Yeah I can feel it. Good to go’ and he doesn’t even miss a beat… That could be someone else not that far in the future.”last_img read more