Bionic Hand Restores Touch In Real Time

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For the first time, scientists have reactivated an amputee’s sense of touch through a new, advanced bionic hand.

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Danish amputee Dennis Aabo Sørensen lost his left hand nine years ago in a fireworks accident. Since then, he’d been using a commercial prosthetic that enabled him to grasp objects but not feel them. Enter professor Silvestro Micera and his team from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.

Micera, who specializes in biomedical engineering, heads up the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory and the Institute of Bioengineering at EPFL. He and his colleagues developed an artificial hand for Sørensen that seems to come straight out of science fiction.

The scientists outfitted the prosthetic with sensors that can measure and convert the tension from artificial tendons into an electrical current. They also added sophisticated computer algorithms to turn the electrical current into an impulse that nerves in Sørensen’s arm would be able to receive and interpret.

Last year Sørensen underwent surgery to implant transneural electrodes in his left arm. Then the bionic hand was connected to these electrodes. During subsequent tests, Sørensen was able to feel an object while holding it in his new hand, despite being blindfolded and wearing ear plugs. He could sense the shape as well as whether it was soft or hard — in real time.

This marks a first in neuroprosthetics, according to Micera. The team just published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine (abstract).

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“I could feel things that I hadn’t been able to feel in over nine years,” Sørensen said in a press release. Although commercially available sensory-enhanced prosthetics are still years away, this hand is pulling us into a bionic future.

Photos: The bionic hand (top). Amputee Dennis Aabo Sørensen tests the hand while wearing a blindfold and earplugs (bottom). Credit: Lifehand 2 / Patrizia Tocci.

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