Prosthetic limbs are becoming more and more advanced, able to perform the majority of the tasks real ones can do. What hasn’t been replicated is that lost sense of touch – until now.
Built by researchers at Case Western Reserve University, their innovative prosthetic hand not only has more precise gripping, but gives back a sense of touch. Their work is so groundbreaking, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) granted the researchers $4.4 million to continue development.
“The user feels like an actual hand is touching the object. It feels real,” says Dustin Tyler, leader of the project.
A few people have taken this prosthetic out of the lab, and into real-life situations for testing. Small tasks that were once extremely difficult, like cutting fruits and vegetables with a knife, securely holding a coffee cup, or opening bags with both hands can now be accomplished.
“What I’m excited about is knowing that I can go back from being one-handed to being a two-handed person,” said Igor Spetic, 49, who lost his right hand in a work related accident five years ago.
“Of course it’s going to be a relearning of using a right hand that I haven’t had for 5 years, but I can hopefully be a two-handed person again.”
As mentioned earlier, prosthetics are becoming more advanced, but Case Western’s is particularly exciting as it links the limb and the brain, allowing users to actually feel the sensation of picking up on object.
It’s the closest ‘feeling’ one can get to the real thing. Sensors in the hand measure the pressure as the hand closes around objects. Based off that, the pressure is recorded, converted to neural code, and then sent to electrodes surgically attached to nerve bundles in the user’s arm. These signals travel through healthy neural pathways to the brain, which interprets it as a ‘feeling’, like from a normal hand.
“When [patients] see the prosthesis touching an object and feel their hand touching the object, they begin to think of the prosthesis as part of their body, again. It is no longer a foreign tool,” says Tyler.
The next steps for Tyler and his team, along with the considerable grant from the DARPA, will be to create a fully implantable prosthetic system that can communicate with the hand sensors wirelessly.
“Our goal is to have it ready within the next five years,” says Tyler. “That system will require approval from the FDA for use in clinical trials.”For people like Spetic, the current Case Western prosthetic is already a boon to his quality of life – and given him back something he lost.
“The hope I have is that anybody that’s an amputee will be able to benefit from this system.”