Bionic limbs aren’t new. Neither are prosthetics and virtual limbs so advanced that patients can control them with their minds, even when the patient is a monkey. Scientists have now developed a bionic hand that not only gives an amputee the movement and functionality of a real appendage, but also allows the user to actually.
A team of researchers from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy published their research in Science Translational Medicine. The project focused largely around a single amputee—a Danish man named Dennis Aabo, who ten years ago lost his left hand in a fireworks accident. The team attached the bionic hand to Aabo’s arm, connecting four electrodes to the nerves in his upper arm. They weren’t really testing the hand itself, but rather, the software and mechanisms that facilitate communication with the brain and allow for sensory feedback.
The bionic hand contains sensors that register touch, such as the feeling generated when we clench an item in our fist, or the way certain textures feel. The sensors emit electrical signals that algorithms turn into impulses, which are felt by the nerves connected to the hand. Thus, tactile information from the sensors gets sent directly to the brain.
Aabo spent a month undergoing tests to make sure that the electrodes were attached and functioning properly, delighting in the ability to sense objects’ shape, density, and texture. The hand worked so well that he could use it in the dark, maneuvering strictly by feel. Aabo called the experience amazing, and said, “this is magic! I can feel the closing of my missing hand!” After a month, scientists operated on him to remove the sensors in compliance with regulations on clinical trials.
The team hails Aabo as a hero for undergoing two surgeries and testing the prototype for such an extended time. They had tested the surgery on pigs and cadavers, but Aabo was the first living human to wear the device. The scientists will now continue to refine the hand and make the technology smaller, as well as reducing or eliminating the number of external cables required. This invention is developing so rapidly that it won’t be long before Aabo and others can participate in lightsaber duels with the best of them.