Brain-computer interface user Nathan Copeland is using a robotic arm to manipulate objects. CAPTION: Artificial tactile perception allows the brain-computer interface user to transfer objects with a robotic arm at twice the speed of doing it without the feedback. (Credit: UPMC/PITT Health Sciences)

A team of has demonstrated how adding brain stimulation evokes tactile sensations that make it easier for the operator to manipulate a brain-controlled robotic arm. In their experiment, supplementing vision with artificial tactile perception cut the time spent grasping and transferring objects in half, from a median time of 20.9 to 10.2 seconds.

Study participant Nathan Copeland, whose progress was described in the team’s paper, is the first person in the world who was implanted with tiny electrode arrays not just in his brain’s motor cortex but in his somatosensory cortex as well — a region of the brain that processes sensory information from the body. Arrays allow him to not only control the robotic arm with his mind, but also to receive tactile sensory feedback, which is similar to how neural circuits operate when a person’s spinal cord is intact.

This paper is a step forward from an earlier study that described for the first time how stimulating sensory regions of the brain using tiny electrical pulses can evoke sensation in distinct regions of a person’s hand, even though they lost feeling in their limbs due to spinal cord injury. In this new study, the researchers combined reading the information from the brain to control the movement of the robotic arm with writing information back in to provide sensory feedback.