DARPA’s Prosthetics Lab Gives Sense Of Touch Back To Amputee

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The DoD’s legendary R&D firm DARPA announces a major breakthrough in upper limb prosthetics technology coming out of its Revolutionizing Prosthetics lab. The team at DARPA announces that it has created a prosthetic hand that offers the wearer a realistic sense of touch. DARPA has been pursuing this goal since the 2006 launch of its Revolutionizing Prosthetics lab. At the time, researchers noticed that lower-body prosthetics were advancing at a much faster pace than upper body prosthetics. This was due to a perception within the field that prosthetic arms and hands were inherently more complex and would be a more significant engineering challenge.

To overcome this, DARPA joined forces with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and together over the following six years, the team made advancements in both brain-controlled prosthetics and, now, prosthetics capable of mimicking a sense of touch. DARPA Program Manager Justin Sanchez explains, “We’ve completed the circuit. Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by thoughts are showing great promise, but without feedback from signals traveling back to the brain it can be difficult to achieve the level of control needed to perform precise movements. 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.”

To test the new prototype, researchers turned to a 28-year-old volunteer that has been paralyzed for more than a decade.  The prototype mechanical hand was attached to the patient and electrode arrays were implanted in the patient’s sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for processing the sense of touch. Next, researchers placed arrays on the patient’s motor cortex, the part of the brain that coordinates body movements.

In testing, the patient was able to control the hand with his thoughts, an impressive feat but one that has been achieved in the past. However, the patient was also able to identify when the mechanical fingers were being touched. The patient was blindfolded and was able to identify which finger on the mechanical hand was being touched with 100-percent accuracy.

The race to developing a near-natural hand prosthetic is not one that DARPA is running alone. Researchers in Switzerland published results from a similar prosthetic hand last year. In that study, researchers also developed a mechanical hand that was able to be controlled with the brain and that sent sensory information back, completing the hand-brain circuit. In that test, researchers blindfolded a patient and tested him on over 700 unique tests to measure the extent of his motor control and sense of touch. After the study, the patient commented, “The sensory feedback was incredible. When I held an object, I could feel if it was soft or hard, round or square. I could feel things that I hadn’t been able to feel in over nine years."


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