VIDEO: New Device Allows for Feeling in Prosthetics

Clinical trial of MiniTouch on prosthetic hand sorting steel blocks by temperature | Image by Caillet/EPFL

Scientists have invented a new device that enables users of prosthetic limbs to feel sensations.

Swiss and Italian researchers recently released the results of a study where they attached a device known as a MiniTouch to a man’s prosthetic arm. The device succeeded in inducing “phantom thermal sensations” similar to the feelings in a real appendage, according to the study.

The study was conducted on a 57-year-old man named Fabrizio Fidati, according to Science News. Fidati had a trans-radial amputation for 37 years, demonstrating no phantom limb pain.

The study induced stable phantom thermal sensations during 13 recording sessions over 414 days. In these trials, the device allowed Fidati to tell the difference between cool, cold, and hot water bottles with perfect accuracy, and the difference between substances like copper, plastic, and glass with greater than 50% accuracy. He was also able to sort steel blocks by temperature with an accuracy of 75%.

The device enabled Fidati to differentiate between a real and a fake human arm with 80% accuracy.

“Three important observations can be made: (1) the participant could control the thermal prosthetic hand to actively explore objects to detect their thermal properties, (2) we found the presence of stable phantom thermal sensations in 413 days, and (3) no adverse events were registered during any of the experiments,” reads the study. “The participant’s accuracy level when using the thermal prosthetic hand to discriminate different objects’ temperatures and materials was similar to the one with his intact hand.”

Scientists believe that this technology is a step forward in restoring the range of feeling for those who have lost limbs.

“First, the participants could gather new sensations, such as wetness and richer bodily sensations. Second, for the first time, we can envision the possibility of restoring a multimodal palette of natural sensations, integrating the thermal phantom sensations with tactile feedback via noninvasive or invasive interfaces,” reads the study.

Solaiman Shokur, a neuroengineer with EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, said that more studies need to be conducted in the future in real-world settings and with larger groups, per Science News.

The study is one of several recent endeavors to make robotics more humanlike. Researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland 3D printed a robotic hand last year complete with ligaments, tendons, and other structures similar to a human hand, as previously reported by The Dallas Express.

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