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Prosthetic Hand Lets Paralyzed Man Feel Again

After a serious spinal cord injury left a man paralyzed, he wasn’t able to feel physical sensations. That is, until DARPA invented a prosthetic hand that connected directly to his brain and allow him to “feel” again.

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006, in part to help upper-body prosthetic devices catch up with recent advances in lower-body devices. They have developed two types of prosthetic hand which give amputees improved range of motion, dexterity, and control.

Its most recent prototype can even feel physical sensations. The team placed electrode arrays on a volunteer test subject’s motor cortex (to control motion) and sensory cortex (to detect pressure input). Laboratory Equipment reports:

“We’ve completed the circuit,” said DARPA program manager Justin Sanchez. “Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by thoughts are showing great promise, but without feedback from signals traveling back to the brain it can be difficult to achieve the level of control needed to perform precise movements. By wiring a sense of touch from a mechanical hand directly into the brain, this work shows the potential for seamless bio-technological restoration of near-natural function.”

The prosthetic hand was developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University to detect pressure using a a set of sophisticated torque sensors. Those sensors translated the pressure into an electrical signal passed to the volunteer’s brain using the electrodes.

For the 28 year old volunteer, that meant he could “feel” when researchers gently pressed on each of the mechanical hand’s fingers while blindfolded. His accuracy was almost perfect. Sanchez reported:

“At one point, instead of pressing one finger, the team decided to press two without telling him. . . . He responded in jest asking whether somebody was trying to play a trick on him. That is when we knew that the feelings he was perceiving through the robotic hand were near-natural.”

For accident victims facing paralysis and amputation, a prosthetic hand that is able to feel as well as move will give them far greater control. After an accident takes away a person’s ability to feel and move, they can be left feeling helpless and dependent on others to take care of their needs.

But DARPA’s new research in prosthetic hands will help amputees and paralysis victims take more control over their lives. Once the devices go through peer review and FDA testing, they will be available to accident victims.

With them, paralyzed people will be more able to adeptly pick up and manipulate items including fragile things that are otherwise prone to being crushed. They will be able to touch and feel their surroundings and be better able to help themselves.

David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in brain injury and spinal cord injury cases. If you or someone you know have suffered neurological damage as the result of a car accident, contact Christensen Law for a free consultation.