Biological and bionic hands: natural neural coding and artificial perception

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 Sep 19;370(1677):20140209. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0209.


The first decade and a half of the twenty-first century brought about two major innovations in neuroprosthetics: the development of anthropomorphic robotic limbs that replicate much of the function of a native human arm and the refinement of algorithms that decode intended movements from brain activity. However, skilled manipulation of objects requires somatosensory feedback, for which vision is a poor substitute. For upper-limb neuroprostheses to be clinically viable, they must therefore provide for the restoration of touch and proprioception. In this review, I discuss efforts to elicit meaningful tactile sensations through stimulation of neurons in somatosensory cortex. I focus on biomimetic approaches to sensory restoration, which leverage our current understanding about how information about grasped objects is encoded in the brain of intact individuals. I argue that not only can sensory neuroscience inform the development of sensory neuroprostheses, but also that the converse is true: stimulating the brain offers an exceptional opportunity to causally interrogate neural circuits and test hypotheses about natural neural coding.

Keywords: biomimicry; neuroprosthetics; proprioception; somatosensory cortex; touch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Artificial Limbs*
  • Biomimetic Materials
  • Bionics
  • Feedback, Sensory / physiology
  • Hand / innervation*
  • Hand / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Proprioception / physiology
  • Prosthesis Design
  • Quadriplegia / physiopathology
  • Quadriplegia / psychology
  • Quadriplegia / therapy
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Touch / physiology