16th October 2013
A blueprint for restoring touch with a prosthetic hand
New research is laying the groundwork for touch-sensitive prosthetic limbs that could provide real-time sensory information to amputees via direct interface with the brain.
The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, marks an important step toward new technology that – if developed successfully – would increase the functionality of robotic prosthetic limbs, making them act more like real limbs.
“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,” said the study’s senior author, Sliman Bensmaia, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Chicago. “We think the key is to invoke what we know about how the brain of the intact organism processes sensory information, and then try to reproduce these patterns of neural activity through stimulation of the brain.”
Bensmaia’s research is part of Revolutionising Prosthetics – a multi-year DARPA project that aims to create a modular, artificial upper limb to restore natural motor control and sensation in amputees. Managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, it has brought together an interdisciplinary team of experts from academic institutions, government agencies and private companies.
Bensmaia and colleagues at the University of Chicago are working specifically on the sensory aspects of these limbs. In a series of experiments with monkeys, whose sensory systems closely resemble those of humans, they identified patterns of neural activity that occur during natural object manipulation and then successfully induced these patterns through artificial means.
The first set of experiments focused on contact location, or sensing where the skin has been touched. The animals were trained to identify several patterns of physical contact with their fingers. Researchers then connected electrodes to areas of the brain corresponding to each finger and replaced physical touches with electrical stimuli delivered to the appropriate areas of the brain. The result: the animals reacted the same way to artificial stimulation as they did to physical contact.
Next, the researchers focused on the sensation of pressure. In this case, they developed an algorithm to generate the appropriate amount of electrical current to elicit a sensation of pressure. Again, the animals’ response was the same whether the stimuli were felt through their fingers or through artificial means.
Finally, the team studied the sensation of contact events. When the hand first touches or releases an object, it produces a burst of activity in the brain. Again, the researchers established that these bursts of brain activity can be mimicked through electrical stimulation.
The result of these experiments is a set of instructions that can be incorporated into a robotic prosthetic arm to provide sensory feedback to the brain through a neural interface. Bensmaia believes such feedback will bring these devices closer to being tested in human clinical trials.
“The algorithms to decipher motor signals have come quite a long way, where you can now control arms with seven degrees of freedom. It’s very sophisticated. But I think there’s a strong argument to be made that they will not be clinically viable until the sensory feedback is incorporated,” Bensmaia said. “When it is, the functionality of these limbs will increase substantially.”