DARPA Developing Prosthetics That Can Feel Touch

DARPA logo.

Image: DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, works on some rather advanced stuff. Programs that they’re currently running have names like Restoring Active Memory or Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies. Those programs are working on projects to restore brain function for individuals with memory loss, traumatic brain injuries, or complex neuropsychiatric diseases.

And recently, their Revolutionizing Prosthetics group made a pretty amazing announcement. Recently, they tested a prosthetic hand for a 28-year-old man who was paralyzed by a spinal injury a decade ago. Through the group’s efforts the man was able to send commands from his brain to the hand, and what’s more, he was also able to sense which fingers were doing what, and was able to feel touch as if it were his old hand.

Brain controlled prosthetics aren’t all that new—we’ve been working on them for a while now. But while we can make mechanical hands that can be controlled mentally, they haven’t been able to send the sensations of feeling that are required for fine control. It’s one thing to know where your hand is or what it’s doing by seeing it, but being able to perform fine actions or do things without looking directly at your hand requires a sense of touch.

The young man was able to identify, with almost 100% accuracy, which finger tips the researchers were touching while he was blindfolded. At one point, they touched two fingers, which he not only recognized, but made a joke about.

The technology is still very new, and they’re still sorting out some details before they publish the findings in a scientific journal, but it’s not too soon to say that this news is amazing. If this technology can be further developed to the point where it can be used widely, it can literally change the lives of people with missing limbs.

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