Keven Walgamott uses the LUKE arm to pick grapes. Photo courtesy of the University of Utah Center for Neural Interfaces. (Photo: University of Utah Center for Neuronal Interfaces)
Losing one hand means losing part of yourself, said Gregory Clark, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah to USA TODAY. And although hand prostheses have been in use for thousands of years, there is room for improvement.
Researchers at the University of Utah, with the help of other organizations, including Blackrock Microsystems and DEKA, have commissioned just that. They have developed a prosthetic system that allows patients to regain their sense of touch.
"Traditional prosthetic hands lack sensory feedback, making them difficult to control and unnatural," says Clark.
The team added sensory feedback to an advanced bionic arm, the LUKE arm. It is named after the robotic arm that Luke Skywalker receives in "The Empire Strikes Back."
They used the output of arm sensors to control the stimulation of sensory nerve fibers that transmit information to the brain and create the sensation of touch. To restore this sensation, electrodes were attached to the inside of the nerves.
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Amputee Triathlete: Shows children what's possible  "Participants can feel over a hundred different locations and types of sensations emanating from their missing hand," Clark said.
Sensations include various types of touch, such as pressure, flutter or vibration, temperature and pain. According to Clark, users can also sense the position and contraction of their muscles, even though the muscles are actually absent.
"That's because we can send electrical signals from the muscles through the sensory fibers (biological wires) the brain interprets them as real," he said.
And just as the brain can interpret the electrical signals, the motor signals of the brain register with the LUKE.
Clark said this when a user thinks When it comes to moving the hand, whether or not it has one, the brain sends a motor signal across the nerves.
"By accurately recording and interpreting these motor signals, the user can control a prosthetic arm in a natural and intuitive way by thinking about it – as they used to do with their biological arm," Clark said.
Keven Walgamott was a participant in the study. He used the arm for the first time in 2017.
"It almost made me cry," Walgamott said in the press release. "It was really incredible. I never thought that I would be able to feel in this hand again.
The next immediate step is to make the system portable for take-away experiments, but they hope they can start home-testing in the coming months. They also hope to be able to make wireless versions so that users do not have to stick cables as in the current model.
It will take years for commercial versions to become available.
"Not only does the sensation restore the ability to feel – it also partially restores the sensation of feeling whole," Clark said.
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