Mind-Controlled Arm Moves Fingers Independently – New Age Prosthetics or Cyborg?

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Biomedical engineers and physicians from Johns Hopkins have reported on their first successful efforts to wiggle fingers independently of each other and individually, by way of using a mind-controlled prosthetic arm. Is an advancement of this magnitude what we can expect of new age prosthesis or is it something right out of a sci-fi movie?

According to the Journal of Neural Engineering, this experiment represented the potential advancement in technologies that could be used to restore function of the hands to those individuals who have lost arms to disease or injury.

The Experiment 

The gentleman of whom this experiment was performed on was actually not missing his arm, or even his hand for that matter. But, he was specially outfitted with a scientific device that was created to take advantage of a unique brain-mapping procedure that essentially bypassed the control of his own hand and arms. He was selected for the experiment because he was already scheduled to undergo similar brain-mapping at The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit, in an effort to detect the origin of his recurring seizures.

Electrodes were surgically implanted into his brain for clinical purposes, which also happened to be useful in controlling a modular prosthesis – developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Specific parts of the subject’s brain were tracked and mapped prior to then programming the prosthesis to move the fingers on their own.

The Relevance

Guy Hotson, a graduate student and lead author of this study says, “The Electrodes used to measure brain activity in this study gave us better resolution of a large region of cortex than anything we’ve used before and allowed for more precise spatial mapping in the brain.” He goes on to say, “This precision is what allowed us to separate the control of individual fingers.”

What is interesting about this study is that there was no pre-training the subject underwent in order to gain this shocking level of control. Furthermore, the entire experiment took less than two hours from start to finish to complete. The experiment marks the first time an individual has successfully used mind-controlled prosthesis and been able to immediately perform independent digit movements without having undergone extensive training.

Senior author Nathan Crone, M.D., professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says, “This technology goes far beyond available prostheses, in which the artificial digits, or fingers, moved as a single unit to make a grabbing motion, like one used to grip a tennis ball.” Crone has made it a point to suggest that the application of this new technology, when used in conjunction with those individuals actually missing limbs, is still some years off. Additionally, the full development of the technology will be costly because it will require extensive mapping and computer programming.

Advancements in prosthetics of this nature, when finalized, could be life changing for the over 100,000 people living in the U.S. that have had and arm or hand amputated. All of which, would benefit immensely from such technology.

Sources:

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2016, February 15). Mind-controlled prosthetic arm moves individual ‘fingers’. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 17, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160215154656.htm

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