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A neural interface connected to a robotic arm allows an individual to experience the sensation of touch directly in the brain. (Credit: DARPA)

A neural interface connected to a robotic arm allows an individual to experience the sensation of touch directly in the brain. By enabling two-way communication between brain and machine — outgoing signals for movement and inbound signals for sensation — the technology could ultimately support new ways for people to engage with each other and with the world.

The patient underwent surgery to have four microelectrode arrays — each about half the size of a shirt button — placed in his brain, two in the motor cortex and two in the sensory cortex regions that correspond to feeling in his fingers and palm. The researchers ran wires from those arrays to a robotic arm. The arm contains sophisticated torque sensors that can detect when pressure is being applied to any of its fingers and can convert those physical “sensations” into electrical signals that the wires carry back to the arrays in the brain to provide precise patterns of stimulation to his sensory neurons.

In the very first set of tests, in which researchers gently touched each of the robotic fingers while the patient was blindfolded, he was able to report with nearly 100 percent accuracy which finger was being touched. The feeling, he reported, was as if his own hand were being touched.

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