In the past few years, researchers made huge breakthroughs into prosthetics research. Recently, the medical world was taken by storm when the mind-controlled prosthetic leg was unveiled. But who would have thought that the artificial limb that restores a near-natural sense of touch was just around the corner?
The U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) revealed last week that it was able to design a robotic hand that can tap into brain signals to restore patients’ the lost sense of touch in the amputated limb.
DARPA researchers said that they have tested the prosthetic hand on a 28-year-old man who was able to “sense” physical sensations via his artificial limb. The research team explained that they attached the artificial limb to the patient’s neural network but declined to provide more details about the medical procedure.
DARPA reported that the man can now even sense which of the artificial fingers is pressed against a surface. A couple of years ago, a team of private academics developed a similar technology which granted patients with a primitive sense of touch and enough control over their robotic hands to twist the stems off cherries.
Although the government is secretive about the new technology, researchers explained that they had connected wires from the prosthetic limb to the patient’s sensory and motor areas of the brain. These areas allow a healthy person to move their limbs and get a sense of touch. The robotic hand was designed by Johns Hopkins University’s department of applied physics.
Johns Hopkins researchers noted that the mechanical limb’s torque sensors can “translate” the pressure a robotic finger applies on a surface into electrical signals that stimulate the brain’s sensory area.
But a group of neurosurgeons said a couple of years ago that such artificial limbs are impossible to produce because the brain and body has a mechanism of rejecting prosthetic limbs that interfere too much with their natural processes. The team argued that an artificial arm for instance needs electrical wires, semiconductors and other conductive materials to deliver signals to the brain, while the brain uses gentler, chemical signals to communicate with the limbs.
So, if DARPA’s invention is a real success remains to be seen, especially because the research unit declined to provide more details on how exactly it managed to pull off the feat. Neurosurgeons also explained that there are a series of challenges researchers need to respond to before they can design a practical prosthetic limb including a way to dodge the immune response to prevent the limb from being rejected.
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