Adding human touch to prostheses

  • New technology used in smartphones is able to help create a revolution for people with prostheses.Woman Hand 3

    When hugging or touching a fellow person we find it quite easy to judge how much force and power is needed to stop us from causing them injury or pain, however for someone fitted with prostheses this becomes more difficult as they are without the sense of touch. However, an experiment carried out by a group at the University of Chicago is soon to be making this possible.

    Prosthetic limbs have already seen a massive improvement over the years with amputee's able to receive fully functioning prostheses that mimic the motion of fully functioning limbs. The making of a smartphone as a mass-market item has leveraged the production of cheap, quick silicon chops and the price of lithium batteries which are needed to power them. In robotic prostheses the computer processors re used to monitor the electrical signals of the arm muscles and translate them in to mechanical movement of joints and fingers whilst the batter provides it with power it needs. However the aspect of touch sensitivity is yet to be incorporated into these limbs.

    Prosthetic fingers and thumbs don't have a sense of touch meaning that amputees have to rely on their visual sense to guide the forces exerted by their prosthetic hands, reports the Guardian. In order to give some force feedback, the ability to detect the strength of their force, they need to be able to detect force. The technology that works on smart phone screens has a touch sensor and can be adapted to the soft, deformable and multiple curved surfaces of prosthesis; however it is a considerable challenge.

    Light.Touch.Matters is developing a mouldable plastic material that contains piezoelectric powder that will sense pressure at any point on the surface by turning it into an electric voltage. However there is still a large hurdle for them to overcome; these electric signals need to be translated in to the physiological language of the body. This means that the electric voltages need to be plugged into the nervous system and interpreted in the brain as a sense of touch.

    Chicago University scientists are a group who succeeded in doing this. They reported that using electrodes attached to the nerves of a monkey's hand they were able to replicate the perception of physical pressure associated with holding things, just by manipulating the voltages. This shows that it is possible to integrate prostheses into the nervous system. If prostheses gain a sense of touch it could change their philosophical status as "lifeless".

    Image source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1413757

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