New Era of Prosthetics May Restore Sense of Touch

September 21, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

A prosthetic limb engineered by DARPA to convey the sense of touch
Photo credit: DARPA

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) says it has achieved a first in the world of prosthetics — a prosthetic hand that can restore a “near-natural” sense of touch.

A 28-year-old man, who became paralyzed over a decade ago following a spinal cord injury, volunteered to be the study’s guinea pig. The researchers hooked up an array of electrodes to connect his sensory cortex (the area of the brain that identifies touch) to pressure sensors on the prosthetic hand. This sent electrical signals from the hand to his brain, enabling him to tell which mechanical fingers were being touched “with almost 100 percent accuracy.”

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The researchers tested the hand’s sensitivity by pressing down on two fingers at once to see if the man would notice. Justin Sanchez, the head of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, said the man responded by asking whether someone was trying to play a trick on him. “That is when we knew that the feelings he was perceiving through the robotic hand were near-natural,” he said in a statement.

The 28-year-old man became the first person to be able to “feel” the physical sensations of a prosthetic device, according to DARPA. The man even reported that the feeling was as if his own hand was being touched. Amazingly, this breakthrough in neurotechnology may restore a near-natural sense of touch for victims of paralysis who have lost one of their precious five senses.

“DARPA’s investments in neurotechnologies are helping to open entirely new worlds of function and experience for individuals living with paralysis and have the potential to benefit people with similarly debilitating brain injuries or diseases,” said Sanchez.

DARPA’s research is currently awaiting peer review and acceptance into a scientific journal, but the scientists are confident that their work “shows the potential for seamless bio-technological restoration of near-natural function.”

Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by thoughts are another area of prosthetics that’s making huge strides, but it has limitations. Without the sense of touch, it can be difficult to achieve the level of control that’s needed to perform a specific task. By wiring a sense of touch from the mechanics directly to the brain, amputees would be able to calibrate their movements by actually feeling physical sensations from their actions.

The advancement instills new hope for people who have lost their sense of touch to be able to experience the sensation again. Pioneers in the fields of engineering and technology continue to amaze with their breakthrough discoveries that will lead humanity to a world of new opportunities.

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