Smart prosthetics that connect directly to the nervous system are being developed by Silvestro Micera from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.
According to EPFL up to 50 per cent of hand amputees still do not use their prosthesis regularly due to poor functionality, appearance, and controllability.
Micera’s research, however, is expected to lead to versatile prosthetics with intuitive motor control and realistic sensory feedback, returning dexterity and the sensation of touch to an amputee.
At the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, Micera reported the results of previous work conducting a four-week clinical trial that improved sensory feedback in amputees by using intraneural electrodes implanted into the median and ulnar nerves.
This interface is said to hold great promise because of its ability to create a natural connection with the nerves, and because it is less invasive than other methods.
It also provides fast, intuitive, bidirectional flow of information between the nervous system and the prosthetic, resulting in a more realistic experience and ultimately improved function.
‘We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years,’ said Micera, who is head of the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory at EPFL and Professor at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Italy.
According to a statement, Micera and colleagues tested their system by implanting intraneural electrodes into the nerves of an amputee. The electrodes stimulated the sensory peripheral system, delivering different types of touch feelings.
Then the researchers analysed the motor neural signals recorded from the nerves and showed that information related to grasping could be extracted.
That information was then used to control a hand prosthesis placed near the subject but not physically attached to the arm of the amputee.
At AAAS in Boston, Micera also described his recent activities to improve the efficacy of this approach and announces a new clinical trial starting soon as part of the Italian Ministry of Health’s NEMESIS project, under the clinical supervision of Prof. Paolo M. Rossini.
This new trial carries this research a step further by connecting the prosthetic hand directly to the patient for the first real-time, bidirectional control using peripheral neural signals.
Though results are not yet available, the researchers hope to find still further improvement in the sensory feedback and overall control of the prosthetics with this new method.