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A Robot Hand Testbed Designed for Enhancing Embodiment and Functional Neurorehabilitation of Body Schema in Subjects with Upper Limb Impairment or Loss


Many upper limb amputees experience an incessant, post-amputation "phantom limb pain" and report that their missing limbs feel paralyzed in an uncomfortable posture. One hypothesis is that efferent commands no longer generate expected afferent signals, such as proprioceptive feedback from changes in limb configuration, and that the mismatch of motor commands and visual feedback is interpreted as pain. Non-invasive therapeutic techniques for treating phantom limb pain, such as mirror visual feedback (MVF), rely on visualizations of postural changes. Advances in neural interfaces for artificial sensory feedback now make it possible to combine MVF with a high-tech "rubber hand" illusion, in which subjects develop a sense of embodiment with a fake hand when subjected to congruent visual and somatosensory feedback. We discuss clinical benefits that could arise from the confluence of known concepts such as MVF and the rubber hand illusion, and new technologies such as neural interfaces for sensory feedback and highly sensorized robot hand testbeds, such as the "BairClaw" presented here. Our multi-articulating, anthropomorphic robot testbed can be used to study proprioceptive and tactile sensory stimuli during physical finger-object interactions. Conceived for artificial grasp, manipulation, and haptic exploration, the BairClaw could also be used for future studies on the neurorehabilitation of somatosensory disorders due to upper limb impairment or loss. A remote actuation system enables the modular control of tendon-driven hands. The artificial proprioception system enables direct measurement of joint angles and tendon tensions while temperature, vibration, and skin deformation are provided by a multimodal tactile sensor. The provision of multimodal sensory feedback that is spatiotemporally consistent with commanded actions could lead to benefits such as reduced phantom limb pain, and increased prosthesis use due to improved functionality and reduced cognitive burden.

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