A European research team created a bionic hand that does more than touch, it actually feels. Scientists have greatly improved the dexterity of prosthetics but incorporating the sense of touch has been a challenge. Many patients have said the lack of feeling is the reason they do not use their prosthetic hands as much as they would like.
This is not the first time science has tried to incorporate a sense of touch to artificial hands. This most recent effort by Italian and Swiss researchers is one of the most advanced. This is part of an ongoing and growing body of research that has focused on the development of more advanced and lifelike prosthetics.
Dennis Aabo Sorensen, a 36-year-old man from Denmark, lost his left hand 10 years ago during a New Year’s Eve celebration when a firework rocket exploded in his hand. Sorensen never expected to feel anything with the remaining stump again.
For a while last year he received the unexpected opportunity to “feel” again when he volunteered to pilot test the prosthetic prototype. Sorensen said it was nothing short of amazing. That was the closest he has been to feeling like he had a normal hand again. While testing the prototype he was able to actually feel different objects.
A few of the items Sorensen felt while attached to the bionic hand were things such a baseball, a mandarin orange, a bottle and even some cotton. While blindfolded with headphones on Sorensen could feel whether it was soft or hard, round or thin and was able to identify each object while intuitively adjusting his grip. Sorensen said it was a great experience.
The prototype device was wired to the nerves in his left arm causing the boundary between body and machine to become blurred. There is still a lot of work that has to be done to reduce the size of the components and hide the trailing cables. So far this hand has only been used in the lab but for Sorensen even with the bulky size the research team behind the prototype got the basics right.
Doctors at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital rooted tiny electrodes, about the size of a stand of human hair, inside the median and ulnar nerves within the stump of Sorensen’s arm. These two nerves would allow for certain sensations to be felt in his hand. Upon receiving a zap from the researchers with a weak indicator caused by electricity Sorensen said he felt as if his missing fingers were moving. This let the doctors know that the nerves could still transmit information.
Next the team put sensors on two of the fingers on a robotic hand in order to detect information pertaining to what the artificial fingers touched. For a week cords were linked from the artificial hand to the stump on Sorensen’s arm. The electrodes zapped the nerve in relation to what the sensors identified while allowing him to respond in real-time to what he felt. This was the strategy behind the headphones and blindfold, the team wanted to make sure that Sorensen was forced to rely only on the prototype.
The leader of the research team, Sivestro Micera, said it was interesting just how fast Sorensen was able to master it. He was able to immediately use this information in quite a sophisticated manner.
The research team said it will take years of additional development and research before this caliber of bionic hand can be available to the public in need of prosthetics. They have to first prove that the nerve implants will be able to stand the test of time. Sorensen’s implants were surgically removed from his arm at the conclusion of the experiment, for safety reasons.
A European research team created a bionic hand that does more than touch, it actually feels. The many patients who do not use their prosthetic hand as often as they would like because of the lack of feeling may soon have an artificial hand they never want to remove.