Pittsburgh project aims to provide feeling to prosthetic hands

University of Pittsburgh researchers are creating a prosthetic limb that moves and “feels” like a natural one. They hope this sensation will improve the user’s dexterous control of the device and give them greater intuition in relation to the prosthetic limb.

Robert Gaunt, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medical and Rehabilitation for the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine will lead a team of researchers with the goal of making the technology ready for testing in 4 years. The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces program and key aspects of the system will be designed by researchers at West Virginia University and Ripple LLC in Salt Lake City.

“Advanced prosthetic limbs that behave like the hand and arm they are replacing have been an unrealized promise for many years largely because until recently, the technologies to accomplish this goal simply have not been available,” Gaunt stated in a press release. “To make most of these new capabilities, we have to integrate the prosthetic limb into the remaining neural circuitry so the patient can use it like a regular hand that, for example can pick up a pen, gently hold an egg or turn a stuck door knob.”

In the first 18-month phase of the project, they will recruit five able-bodied volunteers to demonstrate stimulation of the sensory portion of the spinal cord nerves. This simulation innervates the hand and forearm and can cause an amputee to feel distinct sensations of touch and joint movement in the “phantom” hand and wrist. The team will then insert five fine-wire electrodes into the forearm muscles of the volunteers to collect and interpret muscle signals. This information will guide movement of a virtual prosthetic hand to control hand opening and closing as well as thumb movement. Ultimately the team will develop a fully implantable system for home use.

This research was made possible by the award they received from the BRAIN initiative, a program made by the White House to revolutionize the understanding of the brain and to further the creation of new technologies

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