John Hopkins University may have created life-changing technology which can help paralysed people to feel again.
In a press release from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, it was explained that a 28 year old man who had been paralysed for over a decade following a spinal-cord injury was given the opportunity to test what is being dubbed the ‘Luke Skywalker’ arm.
The robotic arm was created by a team at the Applied Physics Laboratory in collaboration with Revolutionizing Prosthetics, and works through electrodes implanted in the somatosensory and motor cortices of the volunteer. These two areas control tactile information and movement, and by linking both areas to the arm, the volunteer was not only able to move the arm around, but he was also able to feel what the arm was touching.
Sensors in the hand detect pressure, which is sent back to the brain as an electrical signal. The mechanism was tested in a series of experiments where the volunteer was blindfolded and then asked which finger of the robotic arm was being touched. He was accurate nearly 100% of the time. This is exciting enough, but the researchers decided to make things a little more interesting, as described by Justin Sanchez, programme manager of Revolutionizing Prosthetics:
“At one point, instead of pressing one finger, the team decided to press two without telling him. He responded in jest asking whether somebody was trying to play a trick on him. That is when we knew that the feelings he was perceiving through the robotic hand were near-natural.”
Although there have been reports of robotic arms being controlled by thoughts in the past, none have come close to having such precise control over movements. Sanchez believes that the tactile sensations received from the hand can improve this feature of robotic arms immeasurably:
“By wiring a sense of touch from a mechanical hand directly into the brain, this work shows the potential for seamless bio-technological restoration of near-natural function.”
It is hoped that the technology used in arms like this will change the lives of people with paralysis, amputations and even brain injuries. It can provide them with a way to interact with the world, regain some independence and improve their self-confidence.
For more information about DARPA and the research they are conducting, take a look at their research page.