Washington: An amputee with a bionic hand has for the first time been able to feel the texture and shape of objects in his grasp, European researchers said. Dennis Aabo Sorensen lost his left hand when a firework rocket he was holding exploded during New Year’s Eve celebrations 10 years ago, and he never expected to feel anything with the stump again. In laboratory tests he was able to tell the shape and stiffness of objects he picked up, even when blindfolded.
Details of his month-long use of the bionic hand, including results from a week of concentrated daily tests, were reported by researchers from Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Britain and Denmark in the journal Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday.
Until now, moveable prosthetic hands have returned no sensation to the wearer and have been difficult to control, meaning the user could crush an object while trying to grasp it.
“For the first time we were able to restore real time sensory feeling in an amputee while he was controlling this sensorized hand,” said lead author Silvestro Micera.
“The biggest difference was when I grabbed something I could feel what I was doing without having to look. I could use the hand in the dark. ,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was pretty close to having the same feeling as in my normal hand and It was amazing”
Ultra-thin electrodes the width of a human hair were surgically implanted into the ulnar and median nerves of Sorensen’s arm before he was attached to the robotic hand, which is equipped with various artificial sensors.
These sensors measure the tension in man-made tendons on each finger to assess the force used to grasp different objects, while computer algorithms transform this information into an electrical signal that the nerves can interpret.
Silvestro Micera, an engineer at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and the Cuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, said the challenge now was to ensure the system could remain implanted on multiple patients for “many months”.
“Our final goal is to have this in clinical practice in five, six or seven years time – but the next step is to show in two to three years that this can work long term not just in one patient but in several patients,” he said.
Assuming further clinical trials go well, the research team is likely eventually to bring in a commercial partner, although Micera said this was not on the cards just yet.
One big unknown is cost but it will undoubtedly be very expensive, well beyond the means of most patients. And artificial hands still lack the precision and dexterity of the real thing. The high-tech device will not be cheap but Micera said the surgery to implant the electrodes was relatively straightforward, which should limit hospital bills.
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