Researchers at Imperial College London have been awarded a €10m European Research Council (ERC) Synergy Grant to work with partners in delivering natural sensations to prosthetic limbs.
The grant was awarded to an international group, led by Imperial College London’s Professor Dario Farina, that will develop prosthetic arms and legs that can sense the environment and deliver sensations to patients.
Prof Farina, of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “We have partly worked out how to let the brain command a prosthetic limb. Now, we want to reach fully natural control and to have the limbs talk back to the brain via natural sensations.”
In 2017, Prof Farina’s research group developed an arm that patients could move at will, by using a sensor to pick up movement from muscles in a stump and convert them into commands for the arm.
The researchers will now work with a selection of patients to develop a novel breakthrough idea for controlling and feeling robotic limbs.
According to Imperial, the team will first surgically build a so-called ‘bio-hub’ in each patient where nerves that deliver control signals to the missing limbs and sensations to the brain are surgically directed. The bio-hub will be hosted in muscle tissue to host the nerves for movement control, and in transplanted skin tissue to host the nerves for sensations.
The bio-hub, a combination of surgically reinnervated muscle and skin tissues, will connect to electrodes which will pick up the nerve electrical activity for control and for sensations through the transplanted skin. The interfaced bio-hub will then communicate with soft robotic limbs that replicate the natural compliance of human limbs.
Prof Farina said: “Creating a hyper-reinnervated bio-hub is equivalent to building bio-connectors that will allow us to receive signals from the spinal cord and to provide sensations, such as the sense of limb position, into the spinal cord. In this way, we will be able to connect the spinal cord circuitries with robotic limbs to make them a natural part of the patient’s body.”
Dubbed Natural BionicS, the project is said to be the first that combines neurointerfacing, neurosurgery and robotics, which have been combined to reach a common goal run by three leading experts in the respective fields.
Professor Farina leads the neural interfacing aspect, while Prof Oskar Aszmann from the University of Vienna, leads the neurosurgery side, and Prof Antonio Bicchi of the Italian Institute of Technology, leads on robotics.