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Huge advances in thought operated robotic limbs

Robotics. From science fiction to extraordinary reality. There have been huge advancements in the respective fields of robotic engineering and applied neuroscience in recent years and the benefits of the two combined are beginning to yield astonishing results.

A 52 year old woman who is paralysed from the neck down has undergone a series of trials for a new robotic arm controlled by thoughts alone. Scientists have managed to isolate the neurotransmission within the brain that send signals to the limbs to allow them to move in harmony with the thoughts and instincts controlling them, and this new breakthrough has turned that discovery into practical application. Computer software harnesses the brain signals sent to the limbs and uses them to program a robotic arm in a revolutionary new way.

Previous incarnations of brain signals operating robotics have hinged on thinking very precise movements like ‘bend the elbow, open the fingers and make a fist’ rather than the new, more instinctive programs which allow the operator to think more holistically. So for example – one can now just think the task like ‘pick up the pencil’ instead of going through each stage of the process.

Doctors and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh were shocked by the sheer speed of the patient’s progress as the range and fluidity of the movements she was able to make using the pioneering as it reached unexpected levels of performance.

Researchers wrote in the Lancet that the patient, Jan was able to move the robotic arm back, forward, right, left, and up and down only two days into her training. Within weeks she could reach out, and change the position of the hand to pick up objects on a table, including cones, blocks and small balls, and put them down at another location.

"We were blown away by how fast she was able to acquire her skill, that was completely unexpected," said Andrew Schwartz, professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh. "At the end of a good day, when she was making these beautiful movements, she was ecstatic."

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