Advances in Prosthetic Limbs Brings Back a Sense of Touch

This new prosthetic mimicked rhesus macaques’ sense of touch

Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand from The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand from The Empire Strikes Back Dystopos

Last year, Zac Vawter climbed the 103 floors of Chicago’s Willis Tower with his mind-controlled prosthetic leg. Limbs like these—advanced prosthetics that are controlled by signals from the wearer’s brain—are becoming more commonly available. But this limb-brain interaction has been largely one-way: the brain gives control, but gets nothing back. Now, says New Scientist, researchers have worked out how to give monkeys wearing a new type of prosthetic hand a sense of touch.

In tests the artificial hand was, quite literally, wired into the brains of rhesus macaques, with electrodes being “placed in an area of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex,” according to New Scientist. “This area represents an entire map of the body, with each neuron responsible for sensing when a different part of the skin is touched.”

Designing an artificial sense of touch has been a focus of research for a while, and this new work represents the first instance of it being built into a real prosthetic limb. But getting the sensitive prosthetics to work relies on intensive brain surgery, so the researchers say that it could be a while off from regular human application.

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