Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Robot Arm Now Has Feelings: Prosthetic Developed By Pitt Researchers Generates Tactile Sensations

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Nathan Copeland, who is functionally paralyzed from the neck down, works with researchers while attempting to move a robotic arm with his mind on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016.

A robotic arm developed by University of Pittsburgh researchers evokes the feeling of touch.

For years, bioengineers at Pitt have been working on the arm, which is operated by electrodes implanted in the brain of research participant Nathan Copeland, who lost significant mobility after a car crash.

Previously, Copeland could only watch the robotic arm as he moved it with his mind. But researchers find that adding artificial touch to the prosthetic has greatly increased Copeland's speed when completing tasks, like picking up an object.

“It’s basically twice as fast,” said senior researcher Robert Gaunt. “He’s actually able to do these tasks at able-bodied performance levels.”

As noted in the team's recently published research, Copeland’s speed decreases when the tactile component of the arm is turned off.

Copeland said that adding tactile sensation to the prosthetic felt very natural, and that it creates a variety of sensations in his hand, mostly where his fingers meet his palm.

“Sometimes [sensations] feel warm, sometimes they feel like touch or pressure,” said Gaunt. “Other electrodes generate sensations that feel like vibration, or tingle.”

It is uncertain when medical device companies will start to manufacture prosthetic limbs that can produce tactile sensations. But now that Gaunt’s team has created a working prototype, he’s optimistic for the real-world applications.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.