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RCA Graduate Dani Clode's design shows how the brain adapts to a robotic thumb

Our MA Design Products graduate Dani Clode's robotic 'Third Thumb' started as her 2017 graduate project. Now working with a team of scientists at UCL, Dani is conducting research into how the brain adapts to robotic body augmentation.

Dani's cleverly designed device is attached just below your little finger and controlled by your big toe via sensors attached underneath. 

Participants in the study at the UCL Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience trialled the artificial thumb device for five days. They were encouraged by Lead Researcher Dani to use the thumb for activities in the lab and in their everyday lives. The findings demonstrate that the brain can quickly adapt to robotic augmentation of the hand without the need for overthinking.

Dani 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.' Participants even reported being able to use the thumb easily while blindfolded or distracted.

The Third Thumb, Dani Clode
The Third Thumb, Dani Clode

Using fMRI brain scans researchers found subtle but significant changes to how the hand that had been augmented with the Third Thumb was represented in the brain’s sensorimotor cortex. 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).

First author of the study Paulina Kieliba said 'The success of our study shows the value of neuroscientists working closely together with designers and engineers, to ensure that augmentation devices make the most of our brains’ ability to learn and adapt, while also ensuring that augmentation devices can be used safely.'

Interested in design as a catalyst for change?

Find out more about studying MA Design Products at the RCA.