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Publication Detail
From limb loss to robotic augmentation: neurophysiological and cognitive adaptations
  • Publication Type:
  • Authors:
    Amoruso E
  • Date awarded:
  • Status:
  • Awarding institution:
    UCL (University College London)
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How can the human nervous system deal with the entirely distinct inputs and outputs associated with the loss or the addition of (artificial) limbs? And how can this inform the increasing engineering efforts to interface with it through pioneering neurotechnologies? In my thesis, I have addressed these questions by investigating what happens to the sensorimotor pathways when a hand is congenitally undeveloped, amputated, or robotically augmented. Traditionally, hand representation is considered to be highly plastic even in the adult brain. By taking advantage of a multimodal approach involving the use of brain stimulation, neuroimaging, behavioural and pharmacological techniques, I contribute a more nuanced view on this presumed boundless malleability. First, I offer a new interpretation of classical findings implying that the human sensorimotor cortex can functionally reorganise following the loss of a hand in adulthood, showing that perceptual distortions in amputees are likely to be consequential to uncontrolled psychological biases, rather than cortical plasticity, as traditionally assumed. Next, I show that early-life development may offer a more favourable environment for functional reorganisation, by providing crucial causal evidence for rerouting of motor outputs in cases of congenital deprivation. The fact that, under certain circumstances, sensorimotor resources can be repurposed to support new behavioural needs opens the door to innovative technologies designed to restore or extend sensorimotor function, such as brain-machine interfaces for artificial limb control and robotic augmentation. In the final chapter, I illustrate how existent sensorimotor pathways, such as the functional interconnectedness between the hands and the feet, can be successfully harnessed to support the control of extra robotic digits, and discuss the implications of these findings for augmentative, assistive and restorative technologies. Together, my thesis expands our understanding of sensorimotor plasticity, shedding light on the processes supporting novel forms of human-machine integration, and providing original insights for clinical applications.
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