Oxford team develops breath-powered hand prosthesis

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Oxford University researchers have developed a new hand prosthesis powered and controlled by the user’s breathing, an advance that provides an alternative to a nineteenth century innovation.

New breath-driven hand prosthetic holding a pen
New breath-driven hand prosthetic holding a pen - Oxford University

The device is claimed to offer an alternative to Bowden cable-driven body-powered prosthetics, particularly for those too young or anatomically unsuited to an uncomfortable harness and cable system. The team’s findings are published in Prosthesis.

In a statement, senior author Professor Jeroen Bergmann, Department of Engineering Science, Oxford University, said: ‘Our breathing-powered device provides a novel prosthetic option that can be used without limiting any of the user’s body movements. It is one of the first truly new design approaches for power and control of a body-powered prosthetic since the emergence of the cable-driven system over two centuries ago.’

Prosthetic options do exist, but little progress has been made in developing new approaches to power and control of body-powered devices compared to externally powered prosthetics.

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The most widely used functional upper-limb prosthesis remains the cable-driven body-powered system – which can be expensive to own and maintain in low-resource settings because of the costs associated with the professional fitting and maintenance.

The new approach provides an alternative body-powered device for users in situations where cost, maintenance, comfort and ease of use are primary considerations.   

By regulating their breathing, users power a small purpose-built Tesla turbine that can control prosthetic finger movements. The volume of air needed to power the unit can be achieved by young children and the gearing in the unit determines the speed of the grasping action. 

Cable and harness free, the device is lightweight and suitable for children and adolescents who are still growing. Minimal maintenance and training are needed for ease of use in comparison to other prosthetic options.  

The researchers have been working with The LimbBo Foundation, a UK-based charity for children with limb differences, to develop and refine the device.

Jane Hewitt, Trustee of LimbBo, said: “No two limb differences are the same and what will help one child will not be suitable for another. Currently, there is some choice available regarding prosthetics but there are still children who need a completely different approach. For many, their lack of an elbow joint severely limits their access to prosthetic devices and so we welcomed the chance to be involved with Professor Jeroen Bergmann to look at different approaches. This is an exciting development for many of our children.”