prosthetic limbs with feeling
Human finger touches robotic finger. The transparent plastic and black device on the golden “fingertip” is the skin-like sensor developed by Stanford engineers. This sensor can detect pressure and transmit that touch sensation to a nerve cell. The goal is to create artificial skin, studded with many such miniaturized sensors, to give prosthetic appendages some of the sensory capabilities of human skin. Photo: Bao Lab

Advancement in Artificial Limbs Bring Feeling Back to Amputees

Renowned poet Jalal-Uddin Rumi put it on paper that, “Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” Dennis Aabo Sorensen is living proof of the philosophical observation of Rumi. After losing his hands in a fireworks accident, Dennis is once again in a position to feel and touch with his prosthetic limbs. Dennis is a beneficiary of a research journey that was commissioned by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, (The research and development department of the United States army) under the flagship program of Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX).

Prosthetic Limbs with Feeling is Giving Back Amputees a Piece of Their Life

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has a responsibility of ensuring the well-being and restoring the functionality of veterans and servicemen who might have lost a limb will in the line of duty. Traditional prosthetic limbs for a long period of time have been the alternative replacement of lost body appendages. However, the inability of the prosthetic limb to offer the sensorimotor functionality has been cited as a major hindrance to using of traditional prosthetic by ex-servicemen.

Given the problem at hand, DARPA, responded by commissioning the HAPATIX program. The task at hand was to develop an advanced prosthetic limb with the ability of intuitive sensory as well as a feedback mechanism. To put it into a layman perspective, DARPA asked its scientist to come up with a non-living object to be incorporate into the human body that would be in a position to relay information to the brain and consequently execute appropriate reaction action.

Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces

HEPATIX is a word which has been coined out of the term hepatic. Making reference to the sensory communication by touch. It therefore goes without saying that scientist had their work cut out in the name of the program. The program stems from earlier research of revolutionizing prosthetics that was commissioned by DARPA in 2006. The revolutionizing prosthetic program, resulted in the development of two mechatronic prosthetic upper limbs. It proved a hit. With almost similar capabilities to a natural arm. However, conspicuously absent was the inability of the mechatronic prosthetic arm to relay sensory feedback mechanism.  An in-built machine with outward body look like features but still coming short of the DAPA requirement on sensory a real-time response to the sense of touch.


Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET)

Launched in 2010, the reliable neural –interface technology (RE-NET) was to bridge the gap of the revolutionized mechatronic prosthetic with the ability of the prophetic to take execute instructions of the brain. The idea behind the RE-NET was to come up with a high-performance interface that will buttress the low bandwidth that was an obstacle to the touch sensory communication.

Preliminary studies are promising. However, a lot remains to be done for the haptic prosthetics to be rolled out commercially. According to Dr. Douglas Weber, a program manager at DARPA, scientists would have to solve issues leading to neural interfaces downgrade and consequently coming up with neural interfaces that would last a lifetime.

The Current State of Research

Focus has been shifted to the traditional problem of the neuron interface longevity and upgrades. Pattern recognition akin to motor-sensory skill learning is also in the process of being developed. According to Dr. Paul Marasco a specialist on prosthetic and sensation, once the prosthetic limb learns, it will increase its efficiency and reaction time.

In a nutshell, DARPA is spearheading neuron-technologies that will offer a solution to patients and victims of amputation. Dr. Justin Sanchez while presenting preliminary findings of the biotic prosthetics with sensory feedback properties showed lots of promising finding. Albeit withholding on certain facts and figures till the research is published in a peer-reviewed journal, only serve to buttress the notion that it’s a work in progress.




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