EPFL scientists developed the sensory-enhanced prosthetic hand to give amputees their sense of feeling back. (Image credit: BBC video screenshot)
Back in 1993, Almerina Mascarello lost her left hand in an accident at a steel factory, 25 years later; the 62-year old mother of two has been outfitted with a bionic replacement that also gives back her sense touch thanks to an international team of scientists from Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. In an interview given to the BBC, Mrs. Mascarello stated, “It’s almost like its back again,” in regards to her lost limb.
In lab tests, she was able to discern whether an object she picked up was hard or soft while being blindfolded, thanks to some pressure sensors outfitted on the prosthetic hand. The information from those sensors is sent to Mascarello’s brain via tiny electrodes implanted into the nerves on her upper arm. More accurately, pressure data from those sensors are relayed to a computer (worn in a rucksack), which translates that information into signals the brain can understand and then routed through the implanted electrodes. Not only does this allow her to ‘feel’ but also manipulate the bionic hand as well.
EPFL’s first iteration of their bionic hand, note the sensory and computer equipment needed to process the implant signals. (Image credit: EPFL)
The actual bionic technology isn’t new as the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) first developed the device back in 2014, but the sensory and computer equipment was too large to go mobile, leaving it restricted to the lab. The ability to feel using the hand comes from artificial tendons in the hand that control finger movement, which is done by measuring the tension and turning that information into an electrical current the body can understand.
That information is too garbled for us humans to understand, so the scientists developed algorithms to do that translation for us, turning those sensory signals into electrical impulses our nerves can interpret. Thanks to new technology updates, the sensory and computer equipment has become small enough that the wearer can go mobile. That being said, Mrs. Mascarello was only allowed to wear the bionic prosthetic for six months before having to return the prosthetic as the device is still in the prototype stage and will undergo further development to miniaturize the equipment enough for commercialization.
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