Using Star Wars as a way to track progress in the prosthetics is almost a cliché, but boy are we getting close. A new mind-controlled prosthetic hand from researchers at Case Western Reserve University is so advanced that amputees can feel detailed textures and handle delicate objects. And, yes, it sort of looks like Luke Skywalker's hand.
This was no overnight breakthrough. The prosthesis has been in development for over two years, during which time the Case Western Reserve team learned more about the parts of the brain that handle sensation and written algorithms that help translate input from over a dozen sensors on the hand into electrical signals that the brain can understand. These patterns are sent through a cuff that's attached to the remaining part of the amputee's arm, and the subjects involved in the test case say they were able to feel for the first time since their accidents.
Of course, we've seen bionic hands with a sense of feeling before. Earlier this year, a team from Europe developed a less realistic-looking and less advanced prosthetic for one man. Case Western's made-in-America advance goes well beyond that, though. The texture sensation is so sophisticated that doctors could a cotton ball over the prosthesis and the hair on the amputee's arm would stand up straight. "I knew immediately it was cotton," one of the amputees said after a test. And the simple fact that the technology works with multiple amputees — two in the case — also shows that many more could also benefit.
That's not all. Unexpectedly, the new prosthetic also makes the amputees phantom limb pain disappear. It's a nice trade off, getting rid of pain and restoring feeling. The sense of feeling is so acute that the amputees were able to pick up and hold delicate objects like grapes and tomatoes without damaging them. Other bionic hands tend to crush things.
Of course, it will take more time and testing before this technology makes it to market. But we know that the FDA is down with mind-controlled prosthetics. They're going to love this fist from the future. [CWRU]