This weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, researchers from the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) presented a new system that may bring a sense of touch to prostheses of the future. Intraneural electrodes were implanted onto the median and ulnar nerves of the arms, providing for much cleaner transmission compared to external skin based electrodes.
The system can read signals coming down the arm as well as send some back to create sensation. By integrating the interface with a robotic hand, and over time learning to mimic the electrical signals that create sensation, we might soon see true prostheses that actually approach the capabilities of real limbs.
From the announcement:
“We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years,” says Micera, who is Head of the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory at EPFL and Professor at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Italy.
Micera and colleagues tested their system by implanting intraneural electrodes into the 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.
At AAAS in Boston, Micera also describes his recent activities to improve the efficacy of this approach and announces a new clinical trial starting soon as part of the Italian Ministry of Health’s NEMESIS project, under the clinical supervision of Prof. Paolo M. Rossini. This new trial carries 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.