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Revolutionizing the Prosthetic Hand to Teach It New Tasks

18 March 2016

A team of UK-based universities, led by Newcastle University, is working to develop a prosthetic hand that will give users a sense of feedback and a realistic sense of touch.
With current versions of artificial limbs, users do not know where their arm is or how wide open their hand is without looking at it, and if a delicate object is picked up, they can’t tell how hard they are gripping it. This leads to slow and awkward use of the artificial arm and prevents its use from becoming truly natural.
An advanced prosthetic hand like the one the teams are working toward will help those without hands naturally reach out and pick up a glass while still maintaining eye contact in a conversation or lifting a delicate object without damaging it.
“I think hands are what makes us different from all other animals,” said Dr. Kianoush Nazarpour, lecturer of Biomedical Engineering at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Newcastle University, who works on one aspect of the project.
Nazarpour was inspired to delve into this project by those members of the population who currently have to live without hands, and admits that it is very difficult to restore function.
Dr. Kianoush Nazarpour with a prosthetic hand. (Image Credit: Newcastle University) Dr. Kianoush Nazarpour with a prosthetic hand. (Image Credit: Newcastle University)
When it comes to prosthetic hands, there are two areas of technology that researchers focus on. First is getting the hand to do something after the brain thinks about it. The second area, which Nazarpour and the Newcastle team are working on, is helping people to actually feel an object with their eyes closed.
Building this level of feedback into prosthetic devices will enable much higher levels of function for people who have lost their limbs, than is currently available. While many artificial arms on the market these days are sophisticated, they are often controlled by sensing the contractions in the muscles of the remaining arm to which the prosthesis is attached, allowing the user to operate the arm by flexing his or her muscles.
Achieving this level of function involved arming the fingertips of a prosthetic hand with sensors capable of sending signals back to the brain.
According to Nazarpour, the techniques used today employ neuroprobes thinner than a human hair.
However, often when a person moves, the neuroprobes also move, and this causes the entire system to lose function.
To combat this, Nazarpour’s team is working to develop flexible neuroprobes that move with the nerve to prevent this from happening.
The team will work to achieve a variety of goals in addition to developing the fingertip sensors to revolutionize, including building a “virtual hand” that mimics the nerve impulses that would be produced by a real hand and designing electrodes and a stimulation system that can deliver the simulated nerve impulses directly to the individual's nervous system.
In order for a patient to independently sense pressure and temperature in his or her hand and then relay the signals back to the brain and increase the amount of information that can be transmitted, the team will work to translate the “electronics language” into a language the brain can comprehend.
To explain what they are trying to achieve, Nazarpour uses the example of a walking stick, with which a blind person can navigate based on vibrations that emanate from the stick.
Now the team needs to substitute sensations, such as temperature or force, into a language the brain can understand in that same way, allowing the patient to become totally immersed in the limb’s activity the same way a driver becomes immersed in the car—or becomes the car—with its movements.
The goal of the technology is not to replicate the functionality that is missing from the hand, but instead teach it to understand new parameters.
According to Nazarpour, a completely functional prototype that would actually allow a human to feel sensations with his or her prosthetic hand could take another five to seven years to come to fruition.
As though revolutionizing the prosthetic hand wasn’t enough, Nazarpour and the team have just received funding to develop prostheses for lower body parts such as toes and legs, and plan to work with industry partners to fund the work to the next level.
Although the prostheses market is not incredibly large, which can hinder the amount of funding and research conducted in the field, one way Nazarpour and fellow researchers have been able to propel the industry forward is by leveraging advancements in the mobile technology industry, such as new and more efficient chips that can be implemented into their work.
“We have indirectly benefitted from the miniaturization of the mobile phone industry,” said Nazarpour.
He adds that the industry will further expand as cloud computing continues to develop.
Currently, DARPA has funded the Haptix Program in the United States, which is ultimately working toward the same goal as this group of UK teams. Nazarpour hopes that in the future there is more international collaboration toward a common goal, instead of numerous groups working independently.
This kind of joint study can help move things along in the field more quickly. Just recently, Newcastle University joined up with the University of Florida to begin the exchange of industry ideas, possibly opening the portal to this type of teamwork.

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