Neural prosthetics for people who are paralyzed or limbless are nearer with the development of a new brain-linked robotic arm that’s a step towards a “plug-and-play” device.
Developed by US researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, the arm is about the size of a child’s arm and moves like a natural limb. Complete with a simple gripper, it has allowed monkeys to grab and hold food while their own arms are restrained.
While previous work by Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina has also enabled monkeys to control a robotic arm with their brain, the new device requires less preparatory work to use and is more directly applicable to real-world situations.
“In previous studies, because they have all this data from the monkey moving the cursor ahead of time, they knew which brain cells linked certain directions,” says Peter Passaro, a graduate student researcher in the Laboratory for Neuroengineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “In this case, they didn’t know ahead of time. So what they tried to duplicate is what you would find if you go into a human patient who’s a quadriplegic—you’re not going to have the arm movement to train them because they don’t have it.”