Prosthetic Hand Allows Amputees To Feel Sensations
Amputees depend on prosthetics to help with daily tasks, but even simple things can be difficult when the sense of touch is gone. As 7’s Kevin Ozebek tells us, South Florida researchers are developing “Helping Hands” that could change amputees’ lives for the better. He has competed in more than 250 triathlons.
Hector Picard, double amputee: “Nothing is ever impossible.” And can change a bicycle tire in no time flat. Hector Picard: “I’ve been recognized at events around the world as the guy who changes flats with his feet.”
But what Hector Picard can’t do is feel with his prosthetics. He lost his arms in an electrical accident 30 years ago. Hector Picard: “Second- and third-degree burns over 40% of my body, entire loss of my right arm and half of my left.” He relies on his prosthetic arm and hand for daily tasks, but they’re not always easy to use.
Hector Picard: “No sense of touch whatsoever. I’ve dropped many bottles, I’ve crushed glasses because of not being able to sense that I’m gripping too hard. I was always fearful of crushing my daughter’s hand as I held it.”
That’s why Hector is excited about the work being done at Florida Atlantic University. Researchers are creating prosthetics with a sense of touch. Dr. Erik Engeberg, FAU researcher: “There’s really nothing like this in current prosthetics. Everything is based more or less on rigid technology.”
Dr. Erik Engeberg leads FAU’s team. Dr. Erik Engeberg: “We’re basically integrating sensing technology within something that is quite similar to human skin in terms of the texture, so it really is a natural fit.”
There are more than 3,000 touch receptors built into each fingertip of this prosthetic hand. The sensors are made with liquid metal, and a constant electric current is run through them. Kevin Ozebek: “In a way, is this an artificial nerve?” Dr. Erik Engeberg: “You could call it that.”
As the prosthetic touches different surfaces, the current changes. A chip inside reads those changes and then triggers a vibrating buzzer where the prosthetic meets the amputee’s skin. It is designed to give that all-important sense of touch.
Dr. Erik Engeberg: “We took information from each fingertip and used that to get a higher level of understanding of what the entire hand is actually touching.” In the lab, Hector is encouraged by the prototype.
Hector Picard: “The technology is amazing. I’m hopeful for my future or others that will be able to create something very, very good for amputees.”
Researchers here are also working on ways to manipulate the new prosthetics with brain waves. In the future, they’ll think of the movement they want, and then their prosthetics will respond. Craig Ades, Ph.D. candidate: “There’s different regions of the brain, and each of the signals here are from different locations, and when you take those, you can convert those signals into some mapping and map that signal to control something.”
Kevin Ozebek: “Chelsea, if you could, could you close the hand for me right now?” (She closes the hand.) Craig Ades: “We’re at the technological stages where it feels like almost anything is possible.”
Dr. Erik Engeberg: “To reconnect a severed sense of touch, to enable more seamless interaction with the environment, with other people, with pets. There is a really good potential to help people.” It’s their hope people like Hector will be able to test the prosthetic hand prototype at home sometime in the next year.