Robotics can give people a third thumb, but how will the brain react?


Using the “Third Thumb” to complete one of the training tasks, you hold several balls with one hand. Credit: Dani Clode

If you’ve ever wished you had an extra hand to carry out a task, don’t be afraid, scientists are working on it. But a new study raises questions about how this technology can affect your brain.

The findings come from ongoing research into a 3D-printed robot thumb known as the “Third Thumb.” It leads to a person’s domain , making him capable of feats normally required by both hands.

British researchers found that the volunteers learned to use the extra digit quickly: lifting, transporting, sorting and stacking various objects with their only improved hand.

But there was a possible red flag: MRI scans showed that within a few days, participants ’brains had reorganized the“ representation ”of the natural hand into a movement-related region. In basic terms it had shrunk.

According to researchers, from University College London (UCL), it is still unclear whether this change is good or bad, temporary or not.

But they said it should give the emerging field of “engine boost” something to consider in the future.

It refers to motor increase which can act as additional fingers or even an entire arm, with the goal of expanding the ability of normal human movement.

Here’s how the technology works:

Credit: Dani Clode Design and The Plasticity Lab, UCL

It may sound like science fiction. But according to researcher Dani Clode, the designer of the Third Thumb, additional digits could be useful.

As an example, he cited factory workers or engineers who routinely perform repetitive but physically demanding tasks.

“A couple of extra hands or digits could help them in difficult assembly situations, allowing them to do their job more safely and efficiently, and perhaps without the help of others,” Clode said.

Tamar Makin, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL, said robotic appendages could be used in everything from high-precision scenarios — such as surgery — to mundane tasks.

“There are so many things we could do if we had an outstretched hand,” Makin said. “We could chop vegetables while stirring a broth or drink coffee while we write. The opportunities are endless, but because this is such a new concept, and because our world has been designed to accommodate our five-fingered hands, people could have difficulties. imagine what it could be used for.

While many possibilities can be imagined, the researchers were also cautious: no one knows exactly how the brain will respond to these robotic supplements.

And these latest findings, published on May 19 in the magazine Robotic science, ask questions.

Makin, Clode, and their colleagues had 36 trained volunteers learn to use the Third Thumb, performing lab tasks and “being free” from real life.

The device is worn on the pink side of the hand, attached to straps that wrap around the wrist and palm. The wearer does this by manipulating sensors tied under each thumb.

Despite the complicated coordination of the toe and the robot, study participants were adept at using the thumb for only five days, the researchers said.

But the MRI of the volunteers’ brains revealed a consequence: the natural representation of the hand on the brain had “shrunk.”

The big question is: what does this mean?

Since the extra thumb forced people to alter the way they move their hand, Makin said, some change in the brain is expected.

“What surprised us was how quickly this happened,” he said. “After five days of practicing to use the thumb, his own representation of the hand, which they have been developing throughout their lives, has changed.”

The researchers found no clear evidence that participants lost any ability to use natural fingers. But this is something they will monitor in the future.

Dr. Eran Klein is a neurologist and assistant professor affiliated with the University of Washington, which studies the intersection of neurology and philosophy.

He said he was not sure how much weight the conclusions of the new study would give. “The brain changes all the time in response to learning skills,” Klein noted.

However, he believes the study raises interesting questions. Broadly speaking, Klein said, there is the question of “what is lost” when humans outsource skills to devices.

When we rely on GPS, for example, what is the consequence for our own ability to navigate?

With robotic appendages, Klein said, one problem is whether they are inherently different from any other tool people use, like a screwdriver.

Probably, he pointed out, as the devices are carried on the body and resemble human digits or limbs. So what happens when integrates them into the bodily “scheme”: the sense sense of the body?

This is not a completely new concept. People who use a cane, for example, may begin to feel part of it, Klein noted.

“I think the interesting thing about this study,” he said, “is that it raises the biggest question of: what will we allow, since things become ‘part of us’?”

Robotic use of the “Third Thumb” can alter the brain representation of the hand

More information:
P. Kieliba et al., “The rise of robotic hands drives changes in the representation of the neural body.” Robotic Science (2021). … /scirobotics.abd7935

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