Vibrating glove device could help people with nerve damage

A new glove device that delivers vibration feedback to the fingertips upon contact with surfaces has been designed to improve wearers’ tactile sensitivity.

It could be used to assist individuals whose jobs require high-precision manual dexterity, or those with medical conditions that reduce their sense of touch, according to the engineers behind the prototype at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The fingertips of the glove contain a layer of piezoelectric material that generates an electrical charge when a mechanical force is applied to it. This powers an actuator made of a stack of lead zirconate titanate layers to generate high-frequency vibrations. The actuator is attached to the side of the fingertip, so that the palm-side of the finger remains free and the individual wearing the glove can continue to manipulate objects.

Research has shown that applying a small vibration to the side of the fingertip improves tactile sensitivity and motor performance.

In the latest set of experiments, the researchers attached the device to 10 healthy adult volunteers who then performed common sensory and motor-skill tasks, including texture discrimination, two-point discrimination, single-point touch and grasp tests. The experimental results showed that the volunteers performed statistically better on all of the tasks when mechanical vibration was applied.

For example, in the two-point discrimination test, two sharp points were pressed against the fingertip and volunteers reported whether they could reliably distinguish two points touching their finger versus just one. The results showed that when individuals were subjected to vibrations equal to 75 and 100 per cent of their thresholds, they could sense two points that were closer together.

‘The future of this research may lead to the development of a novel orthopaedic device that could help people with peripheral nerve damage resume their daily activities, or improve the abilities of individuals with jobs that require skills in manipulation or texture discrimination,’ said Prof Jun Ueda of Georgia Tech.