Robotics can give people a third inch, but how will the brain react? – Consumer health news
THURSDAY, May 20, 2021 (HealthDay News) – If you’ve ever wished you had an extra hand to complete a task, fear not, the scientists are working on it. But a new study is raising questions about how such technology might affect your brain.
The results come from ongoing research on a 3D printed robotic thumb known as the “Third Thumb.” It is worn on a person’s dominant hand, making it capable of feats that normally require both hands.
British researchers found that volunteers learned to use the extra cipher quickly – lifting, carrying, sorting and stacking multiple objects with their improved single hand.
But there was a possible red flag: MRI scans showed that after just a few days, participants’ brains had rearranged the natural “representation” of the hand in a region related to movement. He had basically shrunk.
It is not yet clear whether this change is good or bad, temporary or not, according to researchers at University College London (UCL).
But they said it should give the burgeoning field of “motor augmentation” something to consider moving forward.
Motor augmentation refers to robotic devices that can act like extra fingers or even an entire arm, with the goal of expanding normal human movement capacity.
Here’s how the technology works:
Credit: Dani Clode Design and The Plasticity Lab, UCL
It may sound like science fiction. But additional numbers could come in handy across a range of jobs, according to researcher Dani Clode, the designer of Third Thumb.
As an example, she cited factory workers or engineers who regularly perform repetitive but physically demanding tasks.
“An extra pair of hands or digits could help them in difficult assembly situations, allowing them to do their jobs more safely and efficiently, and perhaps without the help of others,” Clode said.
Tamar Makin, professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL, said robotic appendages can be used in everything from high-precision scenarios – like surgery – to mundane tasks.
“There is so much we could do if we had a hand extension,” Makin said. “We could chop vegetables while stirring a broth or sip our coffee while typing. The possibilities are endless, but because this is such a new concept – and because our world was designed to accommodate our two five-fingered hands – people might find it hard to imagine what it could be for. . “
While many possibilities can be imagined, the researchers also issued a caveat: No one knows exactly how the brain will respond to these robotic add-ons.
And these latest findings, published on May 19 in the journal Scientific robotics, raise questions.
Makin, Clode and their colleagues taught 36 able-bodied volunteers to use the third thumb, performing real-life lab and “in-the-wild” tasks.
The device is worn on the little finger side of the hand, attached by straps that wrap around the wrist and palm. The wearer makes it work by manipulating sensors attached under each big toe.
Despite this complicated sounding toe-robot coordination, study participants became adept at using the thumbs in just five days, the researchers said.
But the MRI scans of the brains of the volunteers revealed a consequence: the natural representation of the hand in the brain had “shrunk”.
The big unknown is, what does this mean?
Since the extra inch has forced people to change the way they move their hand, Makin said, some change in the brain is expected.
“What surprised us was how quickly this happened,” she said. “After five days of practicing using the thumb, their own representation of the hand – which they have developed over their entire lifetimes – has changed.”
The researchers found no clear evidence that the participants lost all ability to use their natural fingers. But it’s something they’ll be watching out for in the future.
Dr Eran Klein is a neurologist and affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington, who studies the intersection of neurology and philosophy.
He said he was not sure how much weight to give the results of the new study. “The brain is changing all the time in response to learning skills,” Klein noted.
Still, he thinks the study raises some interesting questions. Basically, Klein said, there is the question of “what is lost” when humans outsource their skills to devices.
When we rely on GPS, for example, what is the consequence on our own boating prowess?
With robotic appendages, Klein said, one problem is whether they are inherently different from any other tool people use – like a screwdriver.
Probably, he noted, since the devices are worn on the body and look like numbers or human limbs. So what happens when the brain integrates them into the body’s “scheme” – the felt sense of the body?
It is not an entirely new concept. People who use a cane, for example, may begin to feel that it is part of it, Klein pointed out.
“I think what’s interesting about this study,” he said, “is that it raises the bigger question of, what are we going to allow as things? who become “part of us”? “
BrainFacts.org has more information on technology and the brain.
SOURCES: Danielle Clode, collaborator, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (UCL); Tamar Makin, PhD, professor, cognitive neuroscience, UCL; Eran Klein, MD, PhD, Affiliate Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Washington, Seattle; Scientific robotics, May 19, 2021, online