By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer
When soldiers or accident victims lose an arm, it’s incredibly tough to do everyday tasks that once seemed so easy. Fortunately, the field of prosthetics (fake limbs) has advanced a lot in recent years. What used to look like a hook on the end of a plastic stump has evolved to resemble futuristic robotic hands. Now, prosthetics are even beginning to respond to brain commands, much like real limbs.
Taking it to the next level, University of Chicago researchers are working on touch-sensitive limbs that could actually make the brain feel like the robotic hand has a sense of touch! Their research is funded and organized as part of Revolutionizing Prosthetics, a project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that is known for its work in military technology.
Sliman Bensmania, the study’s senior author and a professor at the University of Chicago, says, “To restore sensory motor function of an arm, you not only have to replace the motor signals that the brain sends to the arm to move it around, but you also have to replace the sensory signals that the arm sends back to the brain.” Motor function means the ability of our body to move, and Bensmania is saying that in addition to the brain sending motor signals to move the arm, it will receive sensory signals to feel touch
In order to artificially (unnaturally) recreate sensory signals, the scientists first observed monkeys. By identifying brain patterns that are similar to humans when they feel objects, the scientists experimented on the apes with a combination of electricity and pressure. They found they could produce bursts of brain activity in the primates that are similar to touch!
While the team isn’t quite ready for human testing, they are encouraged by the results of their work.
Images courtesy of Revolutionizing Prosthetics.