About 50% of amputees don’t use their prosthesis because of relatively basic issues of design—comfort, aesthetic, and controllability. This has led inventor Dean Kamen to famously lament about humanity’s inability to offer our amputees anything better than "a hook on a stick." Put in those terms, the lack of innovation makes your stomach churn.
But soon, a new bionic hand made by Prensilia may change that. Through a highly experimental test surgery, in a project led by Dr. Silvestro Micera of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, the prosthesis will be wired directly into one test patient’s nervous system, which should enable movement through thought alone, along with the ability for the patient to actually feel what touches his or her mechanical hand.
The story almost sounds too amazing to be true. But the upcoming surgery is actually a follow up to a 2009 study in which a simpler, fixed model of the hand was wired into a man’s nervous system to provide a sense of touch. It only had basic sensors embedded in the palm, but the patient was able to wiggle his fingers and feel pricks of a needle. Now, the latest wave of hardware and software technology will enable the transplant of a fully articulating, bionic hand (with sensors distributed in each fingertip, the palm, and the wrist). It’s also built with an improved interface that should permit multiple feelings and gestures at once, while the 2009 hand had an extremely limited bandwidth.
That patient will wear the hand for just a month before it’s removed, and then two years later, they’ll receive a more permanent, polished version of the technology.
The human hand has always seemed like an invention that only nature could have made over the course of billions of years. Strong enough to crush an orange, deft enough to thread a needle, we’re downright lucky to be born with a pair of the most perfect tools that respond to our every whim. But it’s their ability to feel that elevates them from another tool to part of us, that enables the thousands of tiny compensations we make all day as we interact to the world with softness and force. That’s why this single invention and single surgery is so exciting—it could solve one of the ultimate human-factor issues in medicine. And better still? Researchers say if all goes well, we’ll see widespread clinical adoption of such prostheses in the not-so-distant future.
[Hat tip: Inhabitat]