Bioengineers at the University of Pittsburgh Rehab Neural Engineering Labs achieved a breakthrough in brain-controlled prosthetics. This new approach provides tactile feedback through a brain/computer interface (BCI) to help a human subject control a robotic arm. The UPitt team implanted a BCI device in an operator’s somatosensory cortex in addition to another electrode array in his motor cortex. In this landmark work, described in a paper published in Science, the somatosensory cortex BCI transmits sensory information to the brain to assist the motor cortex BCI as it controls a robotic arm’s movements.

The engineers’ goal was to send feedback from the robotic arm and hand to augment the operator’s vision as he performed a number of tasks with the prosthetic. The tasks involved grasping and moving objects of various shapes and sizes. As the video included with this post shows, the tactile feedback helped the operator to complete each task in less time than without tactile stimulation. Overall, adding tactile sensations reduced the median time to complete tasks from 20.9 to 10.2 seconds. UPitt associate professor Jennifer Colinger stated that the results exceed the team’s expectations. “In a sense, this is what we hoped would happen — but perhaps not to the degree that we observed.”

The work at the University of Pittsburgh adds the power of tactile feedback to motor control for robotic limbs. This level of bi-direction BCI connections to control a single limb points to exciting future possibilities that can significantly improve daily living task performance for people with prosthetic limbs.