May 22, 2021 - Technology

Brain-controlled robotic arm transmits feeling, improves performance

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The robot arm with tactile feedback on the left shows much smoother action. Credit: UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences Media Relations

New research shows that incorporating a sense of touch into robot arms controlled by the human brain vastly improves performance.

Why it matters: The work demonstrates the ability to transmit feeling is vital to making a better robotic prosthesis, providing hope to those who've lost the use of their limbs — and pointing the way to further progress on brain-computer interfaces (BCI).

How it works: Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recruited Nathan Copeland, who had lost the ability to move and feel most of his body after a car accident in 2004.

  • Through a BCI, he was able to learn to move a robotic arm just by thinking about it. But with little sensation in his body, he could initially only control the arm while watching it move, which left the robotic arms clumsy.
  • In a study published in Science this week, however, researchers described what happened after they were able to engineer a way for his brain to process electrical stimulations from the arm as a sense of touch.

When a finger on the robotic arm would graze an object, Copeland would feel something similar in his finger.

  • "It just worked," Copeland told Wired. "The first time we did it, I was like, magically better somehow."
  • As the video above shows, once touch was more fully incorporated, Copeland was able to grasp and move objects much more quickly.

The catch: The system can't leave the lab, and it still requires a wired connection — a reminder that even the best BCI systems are a long way from being usable in the world.

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