Researchers at Bradford University are working on a two-year project to examine the extent to which sensory feedback affects the performance of artificial limbs.
The project, starting in February 2010, is hoped to lead to a better understanding of problems associated with existing prosthetic design and lead to improvements in mechanical function.
Principle researcher, Dr John Buckley, said the improvements could be in the form of audio or vibrational signals integrated into the prosthetic to provide enhanced sensory cues to the wearer.
According to Buckley, recent technological advancements have improved the performance of artificial limbs and made the understanding of the sensorimotor control of the wearer even more significant to their design.
“If we determine vision is a key element, then we can incorporate other sensory signals into prosthetics”
‘Very little work has been done on how the amount of control an amputee has over their prosthetic limb’, said Buckley. ‘With this research, we hope to determine whether incorporating design features that improve sensorimotor control is as important as working on design features that improve mechanical function.’
As well as examining the relationship between mechanical function and sensory feedback, the project aims to determine the extent to which the control of the artificial limb is reliant on visual cues by analysing how amputees negotiate obstacles on the floor when their lower vision is blocked.
‘If we determine vision is a key element in controlling prosthesis, then we can incorporate other sensory signals into their design,’ said Buckley. ‘When a limb is fully extended, vibrational or audio feedback could let the amputee know the limb can be loaded.’
Buckley said that while work on nanotechnology could pave the way for artificial nerves that improve sensory feedback, these solutions are still a long way off. ‘Depending on the results of this research, we could develop shorter-term improvements that enhance prosthesis design.’