Recovering the sense of touch

Home Technologist 01 Recovering the sense of touch

Thanks to electrodes implanted in his arm, an amputee with a bionic hand can feel things again.

Controlling a prosthesis is a major accomplishment, but feeling the surface that it’s touching is even more amazing.

A critical step in the development of human-machine interfaces was made in an experiment conducted at Gemelli Hospital (Rome) and led by EPFL in February 2013, in which information moved in both directions between a person and a machine.

Dennis Aabo Sorensen, a 36- year-old Dane who had lost his left hand in an accident involving fireworks, was able, while blindfolded, to identify objects using an artificial hand.

“He succeeded in recognising various objects by their shape and rigidity,” says Silvestro Micera, head of EPFL’s Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory. With such sensory feedback, it would be possible to manipulate fragile objects.

On Sorenson’s stump, a robotic hand equipped with sensors transmitted information to electrodes implanted in his peripheral nervous system, at the level of his arms. This is a breakthrough because until now people with robotic prostheses could control them only by using visual information. Sorenson kept the electrodes for a month.

The goal now is to test the method for a longer period. But clinical trials will have to wait, says Micera, “for another six to 10 years.”

By Julie Zaugg

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