News & Events, Tech

A brain-controlled robotic arm can now sense touch

A breakthrough in research for paralysis patients.

words by: Sahar Khraibani
Aug 2, 2021

Researchers have officially developed a brain-controlled robotic arm with tactile sense. A man with electrodes implanted in his brain was able to control a robotic arm and finish tasks swiftly using touch feedback, something that has never happened before in history. People can now execute activities like gripping a tiny cylinder and carrying it to the opposite side of a table in half the time thanks to the newly developed touch-sensitive robotic arm, which was reported in a new research published in the journal Science.


In a statement, Jennifer Collinger, a biomedical engineer at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the research said:

“In a sense, this is what we hoped would happen—but perhaps not to the degree that we observed. Sensory feedback from limbs and hands is hugely important for doing normal things in our daily lives, and when that feedback is lacking, people’s performance is impaired.”


The way the device functions is as follows:

  • The electrodes that control the arm sense the electrical impulses produced by humans’ brains when they think about moving their arms and send them to a computer, which translates them and manipulates the arm appropriately.
  • When the arm comes into touch with an item, the new electrodes stimulate portions of the brain with electrical pulses, creating tactile feelings.


The sensory input drove people’s performance on activities utilizing the robotic arm to a new level, according to Robert Gaunt, a biomedical engineer at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the study. “We’re not talking about a few hundred milliseconds of improvement. We’re talking about a task that took him 20 seconds to do now takes 10 seconds to do.”


According to Jeremy D. Brown, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the study, unlocking the sensation of touch provides a route to prosthetic limbs that may be utilized more naturally and effectively.


The technology, however, will not be ready for general usage any time soon. It is still in its testing stages, but to have arrived at these results is already incredible. For the time being, the electrodes must be wired to the brain-computer interface, and placing the electrodes in the brain necessitates invasive brain surgery, so scientists are trying to find ways to bypass that. Furthermore, each electrode has a finite lifespan, requiring surgical removal and replacement on a regular basis.


Though this won’t be available tomorrow, it is still an incredible feat in human discovery, making paralysis potentially a thing of the past.


Read more here on the advancements of AI in the art world.


Photo via College of Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University/YouTube