Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Vidi funding for Luke Miller: Exoskeletal fingers that feel like your own

Date of news: 11 September 2023

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Luke Miller is one of the four Donders Institute scientists that were awarded 5-year Vidi funding from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). His research is about the ability of people to use tools and how the brain adapts to technology that is becoming increasingly intelligent like wearable robotic limbs. The study explores possibilities to restore touch to prosthetics or adding touch to exoskeletons, in a non-invasive way.

In our evolving society, the dependence on intelligent technological tools is growing. Notable examples are exoskeletons, used in industries to do heavy duty and advanced prosthetics for people who experienced limb amputation. Miller’s research centres on understanding how the brain adapts to be able to control and to sense with these pieces of technology.

Finger extension with senses

This project will explore the behavioural and neural differences between touching with your finger and an extension of the finger. Miller: ‘The main question is how the brain adapts to be able to control and sense with these pieces of technology. Even though people explored this question in the past, they have not done so at the neurocomputational level as we will do.’

A novelty within the project is that participants will use exoskeletons that are equipped to provide similar tactile information as a biological finger. The equipment uses silicon pads within the extension of the finger with sensors that relate to force, and vibration to grab or tap and then drive motors on the hand related to the aspects of touch. The question is: will this technology make the extension feel more embodied in the sense that the finger extension feels like a finger, or will it feel like a tool that is attached to you?

Restoring touch in a non-invasive way

The project provides important input for the engineers of the future. Prosthetic scientists have been working on these for the last decade or so but the big frontier now, still is how to restore touch to prosthetic limbs. Knowing how the brain adapts to new tools will lead to better tools. Or a better way of installing tools such as prosthetics which now can be attached to your nerve system surgically. The technology of the future could restore touch in a non-invasive way. The project will provide a framework for these improvements.

The future

The first milestone will be to equip the finger extension with diverse types of sensory feedback to find out how that changes our behaviour. The next step is to understand on a neural level. What changes take place when you are learning to use these tools?

Beyond this grant we will be working the way you develop prosthetic limbs or extra corporeal robotic limbs. The study may have implications on a clinical level in terms of ways you can restore touch to prosthetic limb and on a more commercial level on how to develop additional robotic limbs for heavy duty workers.