Blackrock Neurotech, a brain-computer interface (BCI) technology innovator and manufacturer, has presented recently published research in Science Magazine by the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs called “A brain-computer interface that evokes tactile sensations improves robotic arm control.” The research team used Blackrock’s NeuroPort System to control a bidirectional prosthetic arm to restore function for a participant with a spinal cord injury.
The team at the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs had previously demonstrated a BCI system that enabled reaching and grasping movement in up to 10 continuously and simultaneously controlled dimensions. However, BCI control of the arm relied on visual cues and lacked critical sensory feedback. In the current study, artificial tactile percepts were enabled using sensors in the robotic hand that responded to object contact and grasp force and triggered electrical stimulation pulses in sensory regions of the participant’s brain.
The 28-year-old male participant has tetraplegia due to a C5/C6 spinal cord injury. Two Blackrock NeuroPort Arrays were implanted in the hand and arm region of the motor cortex to decode movement intent and two were implanted in the cutaneous region of the somatosensory cortex to receive signals from the robotic hand. Prior to these sensory feedback experiments, the participant had practiced the grasping tasks for approximately two years using only visual cues.
“This technology could eventually assist people with amputations or paralysis who have not been able to move freely,” said participant Nathan Copeland. “The research we have conducted shows that by implanting the NeuroPort Arrays in parts of the brain that normally control movement and receive sensory signals from the arm, we can produce more natural and fluid motions.”
The goal of the task was to pick up an object from one side of the table and move it to the other, which also included an additional simulated water pouring task. Tasks were scored from 0-3, based on time, with a maximum score of 27. The team found that in the sessions with artificial tactile sensations driven by the robotic touch, Nathan achieved a median score of 21, compared to the median score of 17 over the next four sessions without sensation. Scores improved because sensory percepts allowed the participant to successfully grasp objects much faster, which cut the overall trial times in half.
“Our research and technological implementation of the NeuroPort Arrays, combined with the University of Pittsburgh’s advances in the neuroscience of bidirectional BCIs is another step forward to provide every person in need with the ability to move and feel again,” said Professor Florian Solzbacher, co-founder and chairman of Blackrock Neurotech.
“With over 20 years of experience in BCI, Blackrock’s deep technology in implantable clinical solutions is unparalleled,” said Marcus Gerhardt, CEO and co-founder of Blackrock Neurotech. “Working with the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs has only deepened our expertise in creating sensations to improve robotic arm control. The future of BCI is here and we are at the forefront of these developments.”
“This study shows that restoring even imperfect tactile sensations by directly stimulating the correct parts of the brain allows the performance of brain computer interfaces to be significantly improved,” said Robert Gaunt, associate professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, investigator in the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs and co-senior author.
“We are excited to show that the performance of brain computer interfaces can start to approach the abilities of able-bodied people for simple tasks, and look forward to transitioning this technology to home use environments,” said co-senior author, Jennifer Collinger, associate professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and investigator in the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs.
“Blackrock Neurotech is proud to contribute to this pivotal research as we all advance neural engineering to restore function to Move Again, Feel Again, Hear Again, See Again,” said Professor Solzbacher.
For more information, visit blackrockneurotech.com.