New bionic hand may let amputees feel again

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Thanks to wiring that connects it directly into the nervous system, a new bionic hand may one day return dexterity and the sensation of touch to an amputee.

The new prosthetic limb was unveiled by Silvestro Micera of Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

Micera and colleagues tested their system by implanting “intraneural electrodes” into the median and ulnar nerves of an amputee. The electrodes stimulated the sensory peripheral system, delivering different types of touch feelings. Then the researchers analyzed the motor neural signals recorded from the nerves and showed that information related to grasping could indeed be extracted.

That information was then used to control a hand prosthesis placed near the subject but not physically attached to the arm of the amputee.

"We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years," said Micera, who is Head of the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory at EPFL.

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A new clinical trial starting soon as part of the Italian Ministry of Health's NEMESIS project will carry this research a step further, by connecting the prosthetic hand directly to the patient for the first real-time, bidirectional control using peripheral neural signals.

Though results are not yet available, the researchers hope to find still further improvement in the sensory feedback and overall control of the prosthetics with this new method.