Using a Robotic ‘Third Thumb’ Can Change How Your Brain Works

Using a Robotic ‘Third Thumb’ Can Change How Your Brain Works


Using a robotic “third thumb” can change how your brain works, according to a new study published by University College London.Specifically, when using a third thumb the human brain begins to blend each finger rather than recognizing each as its own distinctive part of the hand. The UCL and University of Oxford researchers behind this study determined this by scanning the brains of those using a robotic third thumb before use and after five days of training.“In our brains, each finger is represented distinctly from the others; among the study participants, the brain activity pattern corresponding to each individual finger became more similar (less distinct),” according to the UCL study.

According to one of the researchers behind the study, Paulina Kieliba, this robotic third thumb study is the first to investigate the use of an augmentation device outside of a lab. Twenty participants were trained to use the robotic third thumb over five days and during those five days, they were “encouraged to take the thumb home each day after training to use it in daily life scenarios, totaling two to six hours of wear time per day.”

These 20 participants were compared to 10 control participants who did the same thing, except their third thumb was static and did not interact with their hand as the robotic thumb did. The study participants first used their thumbs to complete basic tasks like picking up multiple balls or carrying wine glasses.

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In no time at all, the participants were able to use their thumb for much more advanced things like building a block tower while solving a math problem. The third thumb became something the participants no longer needed to focus on to use to the fullest extent as it instead became just another extension of their hand.

“Our study shows that people can quickly learn to control an augmentation device and use it for their benefit, without overthinking,” UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience designer and designer of this robotic third thumb, Dani Clode said. “We saw that while using the Third Thumb, people changed their natural hand movements, and they also reported that the robotic thumb felt like part of their own body.”

While the thumb is just that — a thumb — the team foresees uses for similar body augmentation in the future and it doesn’t sound too far from the likes of something found in the Deus Ex series. Kieliba said they foresee body augmentation being valuable to “society in numerous ways, such as enabling a surgeon to get by without an assistant, or a factory worker to work more efficiently.” Let’s hope the people behind this tech don’t become the next Doc Ock.Clode said in the study that she developed the device to work toward reframing how society views prosthetics, “from replacing a lost function to an extension of the human body.” Clode’s third thumb is 3D-printed and worn on the pinky finger side of the hand. It’s controlled by pressure sensors attached to the wearer’s feet, specifically on the bottom of the big toes.

“Wirelessly connected to the thumb, both toe sensors control different movements of the thumb by immediately responding to subtle changes of pressure from the wearer,” the study reads.

The participants’ brains were scanned a week after the thumb training had subsided and the changes in the brain associated with the robotic third thumb had begun to disappear, which suggests the previous changes seen in the brain aren’t necessarily long-term.“Evolution hasn’t prepared us to use an extra body part, and we have found that to extend our abilities in new and unexpected ways, the brain will need to adapt the representation of the biological body,” UCL professor, Tamar Makin, said.

For more about body augmentation and cyborg robotics, read this story about how Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, is hoping to make a cyborg monkey play “mind pong” and then read about how a Neuralink co-founder says the company could build Jurassic Park if it wanted to. Check out IGN’s list of the 25 best Sci-Fi movies after that and then read about why Deus Ex is number 16 on IGN’s top 100 RPGs of all time.

Wesley LeBlanc is a freelance news writer and guide maker for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @LeBlancWes.





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