For the first time, scientists at Caltech have induced natural sensations in the arm of a paralyzed man by stimulating a certain region of the brain with a tiny array of electrodes. The patient has a high-level spinal cord lesion and, besides not being able to move his limbs, also cannot feel them. The work could one day allow paralyzed people using prosthetic limbs to feel physical feedback from sensors placed on these devices.
The research was done in the laboratory of Richard Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, T&C Chen Brain-Machine Interface Center Leadership Chair, and director of the T&C Chen Brain-Machine Interface Center. A paper describing the work appears in the April 10 issue of the journal eLife.
The somatosensory cortex is a strip of brain that governs bodily sensations, both proprioceptive sensations (sensations of movement or the body’s position in space) and cutaneous sensations (those of pressure, vibration, touch, and the like). Previous to the new work, neural implants targeting similar brain areas predominantly produced sensations such as tingling or buzzing in the hand. The Andersen lab’s implant is able to produce much more natural sensation via intracortical stimulation, akin to sensations experienced by the patient prior to his injury.