Brain-Controlled Robotic Arm


Imagine you are missing an arm. Tasks like opening a jar or carrying your textbooks would be very difficult. It may sound scary, but millions of people are born without limbs or lose them as the result of an accident. Scientists are working to replace those missing limbs with bionic prosthetics – a fancy word for “robotic body parts.” (Yes, some people are part robot and part human!) And now scientists have found a way to allow people to control their robotic arm with their brain— just like controlling their real arm!

Why would you want to control your artificial limb with your brain?

artificial limb

Current models of artificial arms don’t work as quickly or accurately as natural arms. Many are controlled with levers or cables that have to be pulled to make them move. Imagine trying to pick up your TV remote by using a lever to control your hand— it would certainly be a challenge! More advanced artificial limbs are powered by motorized devices, but moving the limb can still be tedious and time consuming. That’s why scientists are researching how these robotic arms can be connected to a person’s brain, making movement more automatic.

How does a brain-controlled, artificial limb work?

Even if a person is missing part of their arm, the arm’s nerves still work. When they want to move their arm, their brain still thinks their arm is there and sends the message to nerves associated with the arm. Because there is no arm, the nerves (and the message it carries) stop at the chest. Scientists take the arm’s nerves at this dead end and connect them to the chest through a surgical procedure. Then they place a wire called an electrode over the chest muscles. These electrodes detect the brain’s message and send a signal to the attached artificial arm, instructing it to move.

robotic arm

Can you feel items with your robotic arm?

Yes! You can feel the shape of a cup, hardness of a baseball, and even pain! Even though you may be missing a limb, the nerves associated with your sense of touch still exist. Scientists have created sophisticated robotic arms that have sensors on the hands. Scientists connect those sensors to the existing arm nerves so that signals can be sent back to your brain. This conveys the message of what the object feels like. Scientists take a lot of care to connect the sensors to the correct nerves. They want to make sure that when you touch something with your pointer finger, your brain registers the touch as your pointer finger moving and not your pinky! Losing a limb is an unfortunate event, but scientists are working hard to design the best artificial limb possible.

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  • Kasha Patel

    Kasha Govind Patel is an American science writer, stand-up comedian,voice artist, and podcaster. She currently works as the deputy weather editor for the Washington Post. She has produced the only regularly-recurring science comedy shows in the United States since 2014. Before her time at the Washington Post, she was a digital storyteller for the NASA Earth Observatory.