Nature 453, 1098-1101 (19 June 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06996; Received 14 November 2007; Accepted 4 April 2008; Published online 28 May 2008

Cortical control of a prosthetic arm for self-feeding

Meel Velliste1, Sagi Perel2,3, M. Chance Spalding2,3, Andrew S. Whitford2,3 & Andrew B. Schwartz1,2,3,4,5,6

  1. Department of Neurobiology, School of Medicine, E1440 BST, Lothrop Street, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, USA
  2. Department of Bioengineering, 749 Benedum Hall, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15261, USA
  3. Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, USA
  4. Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, USA
  5. McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15219, USA
  6. Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, USA

Correspondence to: Andrew B. Schwartz1,2,3,4,5,6 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to A.B.S. (Email: abs21@pitt.edu).

Arm movement is well represented in populations of neurons recorded from the motor cortex1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Cortical activity patterns have been used in the new field of brain–machine interfaces8, 9, 10, 11 to show how cursors on computer displays can be moved in two- and three-dimensional space12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. Although the ability to move a cursor can be useful in its own right, this technology could be applied to restore arm and hand function for amputees and paralysed persons. However, the use of cortical signals to control a multi-jointed prosthetic device for direct real-time interaction with the physical environment ('embodiment') has not been demonstrated. Here we describe a system that permits embodied prosthetic control; we show how monkeys (Macaca mulatta) use their motor cortical activity to control a mechanized arm replica in a self-feeding task. In addition to the three dimensions of movement, the subjects' cortical signals also proportionally controlled a gripper on the end of the arm. Owing to the physical interaction between the monkey, the robotic arm and objects in the workspace, this new task presented a higher level of difficulty than previous virtual (cursor-control) experiments. Apart from an example of simple one-dimensional control23, previous experiments have lacked physical interaction even in cases where a robotic arm16, 19, 24 or hand20 was included in the control loop, because the subjects did not use it to interact with physical objects—an interaction that cannot be fully simulated. This demonstration of multi-degree-of-freedom embodied prosthetic control paves the way towards the development of dexterous prosthetic devices that could ultimately achieve arm and hand function at a near-natural level.


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