In a technological breakthrough for artificial limb construction, 36-year-old Danish patient Dennis Sorensen is the world’s first amputee able to experience the sensation of “touch” with an artificial hand.
The sensory-enhanced bionic hand, known by the project name of Lifehand 2, was developed by neuroengineer Silvestro Micera with the help of researchers in Italy and Switzerland. Four ultra-thin electrode wires link to nerves in Sorensen’s arm, allowing him to transmit electronic signals between the hand and his brain. The hand uses complex computer algorithms to change the electric signals into impulses the nerves would understand and interpret as “feeling.”
“It was interesting to see how fast he was able to master this,” said Micera. “He was able to use this information immediately, in a quite sophisticated way.”
Sorensen, who lost his hand almost 10 years ago in a fireworks accident, was able to feel the shape and texture of items he touched, as well as the sensation of strength. According to researchers, this is the first time an amputee has been able to receive real-time sensations though an artificial limb. Although many improvements have been made to prosthetic dexterity over the past years, touch has been more challenging to establish, and has led to many amputees using their limbs less frequently than they might like.
The technology essentially replicates, at a rudimentary level, the feeling of actually having a hand, rather than manipulating the parts of an artificial hand. “I could feel things that I hadn’t been able to feel in over nine years,” marveled Sorensen.
The project is still in its infancy, and the current prototype cannot be taken outside of its laboratory setting yet. The team running the study is hoping that, in the future, they can develop an entirely wireless form of the technology.
Scientists in charge of the project will continue on with their experiments; the next phase of research is called the HandBot project. The results of the Lifehand 2 clinical trial were published this Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine.