Neuroprosthetics: Once More, With Feeling

Prosthetic arms are getting ever more sophisticated. Now they just need a sense of touch. The Modular Prosthetic Limb will help patients to feel and manipulate objects just as they would with a native hand.

Sitting motionless in her wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down by a stroke, Cathy Hutchinson seems to take no notice of the cable rising from the top of her head through her curly dark hair. Instead, she stares intently at a bottle sitting on the table in front of her, a straw protruding from the top. Her gaze never wavers as she mentally guides a robot arm beside her to reach across the table, close its grippers around the bottle, then slowly lift the vessel towards her mouth. Only when she finally manages to take a sip does her face relax into a luminous smile.

This video of 58-year-old Hutchinson illustrates the strides being taken in brain-controlled prosthetics. Over the past 15 years, researchers have shown that a rat can make a robotic arm push a lever a monkey can play a video game and a person with quadriplegia Hutchinson can sip from a bottle of coffee, all by simply thinking about the action. Improvements in prosthetic limbs have been equally dramatic, with devices now able to move individual fingers and bend at more than two dozen joints.

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