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Bionic Hands Partially Restore Users’ Sense of Touch

The hand’s sensors communicate directly with the wearer’s nerves

(Photo: Science Translational Medicine)
smithsonian.com

Bionic prosthetics can allow amputees to better interact with the world. But these mechanical devices often lack of sensation. How do you know if you're delivering a crushing handshake if you have no sense of touch in your robotic fingers? 

Now, two different scientific groups, one in the U.S. and another in Europe, have announced the first hints of a possible fix. They've developed bionic hands that give their wearers a partial sense of touch and much better precision.

As the BBC reports, the American team did this by attaching sensors in the bionic arm to nerves in the patient's arm. Those sensors receive electronic signals from 19 different points in the arm and simulate the sensation of touch; different electronic signals correspond with different sensations. For now, the BBC continues, patients can identify whether they're holding a soft or rough material, and they can pluck the stem from a cherry without bursting that fruit. 

The Europeans, on the other hand, solved the problem by attaching the artificial arm's titanium body directly to the person's bone—the first time "long-term stable fusion between man and machine" has ever been done, the researchers told the BBC. Wires also connect muscles and nerves to the arm, giving the patient much greater control and allowing "communication between the prosthesis and the body." 

So far, three patients have experimented with the arms. The two U.S. patients' trials were confined to the lab, but the European patient, a Swedish man, was able to take his arm home and even wear it at night while he slept, Bloomberg News reports. Within a year, the U.S. scientists told Bloomberg, the devices will be even better, and the Swedish team is already planning larger studies. 

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