Researchers add sense of touch to robotic arm via brain implant

A robotic arm grasps a white spherical object.

Enlarge / Robotic arm in action. (credit: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center)

One of the most astonishing examples of the promise of brain implants is shown in a video in which a paralyzed person controls a robotic arm with nothing but her thoughts. The technology alone is impressive, but the joy on the participant’s face as she grabs herself a drink for the first time in over a decade really drives home just how important this technology can be.

While we’re still decades away from widespread implant use, there are continued signs of progress in making implants more functional. Last week, we saw a neural implant that could turn imagined writing into real text. This week, the research community has followed up with an implant-controlled robotic arm that sends touch feedback to the user via a second implant.

Adding senses

When we go to pick up an object, we locate the object primarily through vision. From there, other senses take over. Humans have a sense called proprioception, which helps us know where our body parts are, even when they’re not visible. Our sense of touch tells us when we’ve made contact with the object, and pressure sensation gives us an indication of how firmly we’ve grasped the object. The visual system quickly becomes secondary to the process.