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A Prosthetic Arm, Controlled By Your Thoughts

The future of artificial limbs is one where they act just like parts of the human body and can be moved by our brains.

Researchers have shown how brain-computer interfaces could allow the disabled to move objects using nothing more than thoughts. By placing a small sensor in the brain’s motor cortex, interfaces can pick up on electrical activity, and translate it into commands that control a robotic arm. The person simply needs to think she/he is doing something for the arm to move, as you can see from the video below.

Now scientists have gone a step further. Instead of a wired brain-arm link, they have now developed a wireless connection powerful enough to work at a distance of three feet. The technology has been tested on two pairs of pigs and monkeys, and the signal has remained constant for more than a year.

"Clinical applications may include thought-controlled prostheses for severely neurologically impaired patients, wireless access to motorized wheelchairs or other assistive technologies, and diagnostic monitoring such as in epilepsy, where patients currently are tethered to the bedside during assessment," says David Borton, at Brown University, in a press release.

The two-inch device is made of titanium and is recharged wirelessly, using an inductive link. The technology could also help people adjusting to prosthetic limbs for the first time. Researchers say exploiting a person’s residual brain activity is a potentially quicker route to recovery than retraining actual muscles.

"For people who have sustained paralysis or limb amputation, rehabilitation can be slow and frustrating because they have to learn a new way of doing things that the rest of us do without actively thinking about it," says Grace Peng, at the National Institutes of Health. "Brain-computer interfaces harness existing brain circuitry, which may offer a more intuitive rehab experience, and ultimately, a better quality of life for people who have already faced serious challenges."