Brain plasticity — the ability to change based on experience and time — holds promise for wide-ranging advances in health and medical technology. In the field of robotics, intentional brain rewiring enables breaching the brain-machine interface. In short, when we can control robots with our minds, we can get them to perform tasks that we cannot or choose not to do ourselves. We have written before about paraplegics using virtual reality to move their limbs at Duke University. We also covered an $8 million National Science Foundation grant to three California universities to create a brain-body bionic suit.

Researchers at the University of Chicago successfully demonstrated that amputees can learn to control a robotic arm long after amputation by stimulating electrodes implanted in their brains. In a study published in Nature Communications, the researchers detailed their work with three rhesus monkeys. The monkeys each had had an arm amputated due to past injuries, respectively four, nine, and ten years prior the study. The training task involved moving a robotic arm and grasping a ball. Researchers inserted electrodes arrays in the monkeys’ brains on either the side of the brain used to control the remaining limb (in one case) or the amputated limb (two cases). The team recorded the effects of the training activity on the monkey’s brains by mapping neuron connections. They mapped connections before the training began, during the training, and after the monkeys succeeded in grasping the ball with the robotic arm solely by thinking about it.

The neural activity patterns varied in the test monkeys depending on which side of the brain the arrays were placed. Both placements were successful, however, even ten years after amputation. The monkeys were successful in controlling the robotic arm. Much more work on this and similar projects is still to come. The path of future work includes equipping robotic limbs to give feedback about touch and location.