|13 October 2016|

USA

For the first time ever technology has been used to give a disabled person the sense of touch via a robotic arm controlled by the brain.

A team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC developed a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) that allowed 28-year-old Nathan Copeland – who suffered spinal injuries in a car accident in 2004 – to experience touch by using a mind-controlled robotic arm. Nathan’s life-changing moment happened after he came out of brain surgery and was connected to the BCI.

“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.”

Inputs from the robotic arm were transmitted through a microelectrode array implanted in the brain where the neurons that control hand movement and touch are located. The microelectrode array and its control system, which were developed by Blackrock Microsystems, along with the robotic arm, which was built by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, formed all the pieces of the puzzle. The groundbreaking development by team of experts led by Dr Robert Gaunt, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Pitt, was revealed in a study published online today in Science Translational Medicine.

Dr Gaunt said: “The ultimate goal is to create a system which moves and feels just like a natural arm would. We have a long way to go to get there, but this is a great start.”