It's hard to put a time line on it all, Grossman said, since technological advances could changes things. He also noted that several research groups are looking at different approaches to brain-computer interfaces.
One, Grossman said, is to do it noninvasively, through electrodes placed on the scalp.
Study author Tyler-Kabara said that noninvasive approach has met with success in helping people perform simple tasks, like moving a cursor on a computer screen. "But I don't think it will ever be good enough for performing complicated tasks," she said, noting that it can't work as precisely as the implanted electrodes.
A next step, Tyler-Kabara said, is to develop a "two-way" electrode system that stimulates the brain to generate sensation -- with the aim of helping people adjust the robot's grip strength.
She said there is also much to learn about which people will ultimately be good candidates for the technology. There may, for example, be some brain injuries that prevent people from benefiting.
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The research is being funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Pittsburgh.
The University of Pittsburgh has images of the brain-computer interface at work.
SOURCES: Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor, neurological surgery; University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Robert Grossman, M.D., neurosurgeon, Methodist Neurological Institute, Houston; American Association of Neurological Surgeons, press release, April
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