Guru Magazine - - Contents - Au­thor: Si­mon Makin

Here’s a roundup of some of the news you prob­a­bly missed. Ever wanted to know what your pet is re­ally think­ing? Find out how. Plus, why a good night’s sleep could give your brain a spring clean, and what the pros­thetic limbs of tomorrow will feel like.

Pros­thetic limbs have be­come amaz­ingly so­phis­ti­cated in re­cent years. Ro­botic arms can move in any di­men­sion a real arm can, com­plete with in­di­vid­u­ally mov­ing,

jointed fin­gers. They can even be con­trolled by the power of thought alone! (No, they’re not toys, even though they sound like great Christ­mas gifts for gad­get fans.) We’ve nearly cre­ated Robocop tech­nol­ogy, but some­thing cru­cial is still miss­ing: a sense of touch. Our abil­ity to feel lets us know when we make con­tact with things, where they are touch­ing us, how much pres­sure we are ap­ply­ing, and so on. We can’t get the same in­for­ma­tion from just watch­ing what we’re do­ing – just try un­lock­ing your front door with fin­gers numbed from the cold! With­out this sense of touch to give us feed­back, in­ter­act­ing with the world through a ro­botic arm re­mains clumsy, and we will in­evitably drop (or crush) things oc­ca­sion­ally. Not too much of a prob­lem if it’s a cof­fee mug, but pick­ing up the fam­ily pet is prob­a­bly risky. But all that may be about to change: sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Chicago, Illi­nois, led by Sli­man Bens­maia, have man­aged to ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ate a

sense of touch by de­liv­er­ing sig­nals di­rectly to the brain. They have tested their new tech­nique with Rh­e­sus macaque mon­keys – but, in the­ory, the same process could be used for hu­man am­putees.

Feel­ing like a mon­key

In the first part of the ex­per­i­ment, the re­searchers trained a group of mon­keys to look left or right de­pend­ing on which of their fin­gers was touched, or how hard they were prod­ded. They then im­planted tiny elec­trode wires into a part of the brain that deals with touch sen­sa­tion (known as the so­matosen­sory cor­tex) and mea­sured brain ac­tiv­ity there. By touch­ing a mon­key’s skin at the same time as mon­i­tor­ing its brain ac­tiv­ity, the team could pre­cisely iden­tify the ar­eas that ‘felt’ be­ing touched in dif­fer­ent places. They then used th­ese same elec­trodes to de­liver elec­tri­cal stimulation in th­ese same places (cor­re­spond­ing to dif­fer­ent fin­gers), and ad­justed the strength of the sig­nals to sim­u­late dif­fer­ent pres­sures. And, sure enough, the mon­keys re­sponded in nearly the same way as if they had been phys­i­cally touched: the mon­keys

looked in the cor­rect di­rec­tion whether they had been phys­i­cally touched or elec­tron­i­cally stim­u­lated.

The sci­en­tists claim that their re­sults pro­vide a blue­print for con­vert­ing the out­put from touch sen­sors on a pros­thetic arm into a real sen­sa­tion of touch via a di­rect con­nec­tion with the brain. If suc­cess­ful, this new tech­nol­ogy would help some­one wear­ing a pros­thetic arm to han­dle things more pre­cisely – and it would also make the pros­thetic ‘feel’ more a part of them. It’s still early days, but this is a vi­tal step to­wards mak­ing truly use­ful brain-con­trolled pros­thetic limbs, and Bens­maia thinks th­ese re­sults will bring such de­vices closer to be­ing tested in hu­mans. In the mean­time, other sci­en­tists are de­vel­op­ing pres­sure sen­sors ad­vanced enough to be used with this tech­nol­ogy. So it may not be long be­fore peo­ple who have lost limbs, or sen­sa­tion in their limbs, could again be reach­ing out to feel the touch of some­one they love.

BE­LOW: New re­search at the Univer­sity

of Chicago is lay­ing the ground­work for touch-sen­si­tive pros­thetic limbs

that one day could con­vey real-time sen­sory in­for­ma­tion to am­putees via a di­rect in­ter­face with the brain.

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