I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to lose the use of one of my hands. They are so fundamentally important to most of my everyday tasks that the thought of having to operate without one of them is traumatic in and of itself. Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks this way as a group of scientists in Italy are currently trying to come up with a new and better prosthesis. While current prosthetics are impressive they lack one of the most important aspects of a biological hand – feedback. At the current level of technology the best a prosthesis can do is respond to certain impulses that originate in the upper shoulder allowing for automated movement, and in more advanced models they can even produce variations in the amount of pressure exerted by the mechanical arm. However they cannot relay any of the information from the hand back to the user. Up until now scientists have had difficulty sending information on through the nervous system and back up to the brain. If a recent success is any indication though this last hurdle might have been overcome.
A team in Italy thinks they might have come up with a solution to the feedback problem by surgically grafting tiny probes onto nerve receptors in the patient’s upper arm, and then electronically stimulating the probes. The mechanical arm can then pass on information through sensors embedded within it and let the user know details about the object that they are touching. BBC recently wrote an article about the paper that the team of scientists published. In the article BBC describes how the patient was able to not only receive feedback from the hand but that it was intuitive and he was quickly able to identify the stiffness objects that he was holding as well as vary the amount of pressure that was exerted. This level of feedback would allow the wearer to interpret the world around him without the constant need to supervise his prosthetic arm. Narrowing the gap between a biological hand and prostheses. While this new technology is still very much within the clinical trial phase that didn’t stop the patient from pronouncing he was ready to sign up for the first commercially available unit. It should be noted that the bionic hand itself is not the focus of this excitement; touch sensors and pressure variation have existed for some time. Instead these new changes have been brought about through software that can interpret the information from the sensors and pass that on to the custom made implantable electrodes.
It is amazing to think about how this might revolutionize the prosthetic industry and potential recovery of those affected. It is still a long way off from this sort of technology being available for commercial use but nonetheless it’s exciting to think about the progress that we’ve made. The bionic hand of science fiction lore is now more of a reality than ever before.
Posted by Kirk MacKinnon (2)