Robotics: the “made in Italy” bionic fingertip reveals the secrets of touch perception
By using a bionic fingertip that can restore the sense of touch in an artificial manner, a team of researchers at the BioRobotics Institute of Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa and at the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University in Sweden uncovered a fundamental mechanism through which the brain processes tactile stimuli. The new discovery could have important implications for the development of new neuroprostheses able to restore the sense of touch to amputees and could also help to better understand the genesis of neurological diseases.
Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study is a collaboration between Italy and Sweden, with Calogero Oddo and Silvestro Micera from the BioRobotics Institute of Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies and Henrik Jorntell from the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University. By using a bionic finger, the research group generated artificial touch experiences, imitating the behaviour of nerve receptors located in the fingertips. The analysis of the response to these stimuli by the cerebral somatosensory cortex – the cerebral cortex responsible for processing also tactile pulses – revealed that neurons process the tactile signals coming from the periphery of the body to represent the interaction with the external world in our brain.
“In the near future, also thanks to the results of the projects carried out in collaboration with Inail, this scientific knowledge will be integrated into a new generation of sensitive robotic hands – explained Calogero Oddo, the bioengineer who coordinated the biorobotics part of the study – able to convey fine tactile information to amputees. With the research projects supported by Regione Toscana, our results will contribute to the improvement of robotic systems with human-like tactile sensory abilities, to perform complex tasks, such as in surgical robots, rescue, services and industry”.
The study was funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI) and by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR), in the context of the Italy-Sweden bilateral research project SensBrain and of the Research Project of National Interest (PRIN) HandBot. In addition, the study received funding from the European Commission through the projects NanoBioTouch and NEBIAS, funded under the Seventh Framework Programme.