Researchers have developed a mind-controlled robotic hand for the 40% of paraplegics who can still move their shoulders and elbows and hate to be spoon-fed in restaurants, but the jury is still out as to whether or not the technology is practicable.

The hand exoskeleton, which is controlled via eye movements and electrodes attached on the scalp, is attached to paralysed limbs. Three European research institutes combined to develop it.

Though this isn’t the first invention of its kind – brain-controlled prosthetics have been presented by US researchers – this is the first system that allows individuals to “veto” an action with a simple eye movement, explained Sujo R. Soekader of the German lab involved.

So long as the user keeps his eyes focused on his hand, the grip won’t open, regardless of what his brainwaves are saying. This mechanism should help keep users from dropping items, he continued.

The prosthetic hand was tested by six paraplegics as they went about their daily lives, the University of Tuebingen shared in a press release.

“They were capable of, for example, eating and drinking in a restaurant without assistance,” said Soekader, head of the Applied Neurotechnology Lab at the German university.

ironman hand

The Tuebingen team worked together with the BioRobotics Institute in Italy and Spain’s Gutmann Institute near Barcelona. Their study was first published in the journal Science Robotics.

Soekedar insisted the system is more reliable than other comparable control systems.

Ruediger Rupp, an expert at Heidelberg University who researches the same subject, warned that control systems using the eyes can also lead to errors, causing the hand to unintentionally open. He doubts that the system is suitable for everyday use.

“Three and a half hours spent going out and to a cafe after researchers make the necessary adjustments is not everyday use,” Rupp said.

For real compatibility with everyday life, the system needs to be capable of functioning without the help of researchers. The researchers still have a long way to go, he said.

But according to Soekader, “The system is ready.” Whether or not the system makes it to market and is able to help paraplegics was now only a question of whether investors and industry were willing come on board. – dpa