Prosthetics with a Sense of Touch
In this JBKnowledge Tech Find, we’ll see how advances in medical technology are transforming the world of prosthetic limbs. Washington University scientists have been granted $1.9 million dollars to test a device that has the ability to allow people with prosthetic hands to gain back the sense of touch. The research is currently being tested on macaque monkeys by Dan Moran who is the biomedical engineering professor overseeing the project for the next three years.
The next step, after testing on the monkeys, is to start testing on humans. Moran estimates that it will take around 5 years for people who have lost a hand to start feeling sensation from their prosthetics. The device he is currently testing will be combined with another research project being conducted outside of the university to turn this research into a tangible device.
There have been many advances in the past for prosthetic technology besides sensation, such as better mobility and flexibility of the limbs. However, the absence of the sensation touch has greatly limited a prosthetics usefulness up until now.
For example, “If they’re holding their cup of coffee and they look away, like if you call their attention, what happens is they have no idea the orientation of their hand and because muscles are very noisy, very quickly the hand will tip and you’ll spill the coffee all over the floor,” Moran explained. Having the feeling of touch will allow the person to feel where their artificial hand is at all times and help to better the life of the person.
Currently, the Washington University team is focusing on an electrode that will send sensory information to the brain from the electrode located in the amputated arm.
“You essentially create this very intimate interface between the implanted microelectrode and the peripheral nerve tissue, and this gives you the ability over long periods of time to either stimulate that nerve tissue or record signals in that nerve tissue and thereby sort of communicate with that nerve and provide an external link to prosthetic devices,” said Matthew MacEwan, who did much of the groundwork for creating the device for his MD/PhD dissertation.
This research, along with technology like bioficial hearts that is currently being utilized, will provide great strides in helping to improve the way people with prosthetics and artificial body parts live. An amputee’s life is turned upside down once they lose a limb. They have to relearn even the most basic skills that they were taught when they were a child. Their life may never be completely back to normal, but with technology allowing them to gain back the sense of touch it will help the patient to start to feel whole again.