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Researchers from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland announced the first clinical trials of an advanced new bionic hand. Unlike almost all forearm prosthetics in clinical use today, it is designed to not only receive it’s movement input from patients, but also send back touch information along the same nerve channels to give them a sense of touch.

The scientist leading the project, Silvestro Micera, is the Head of the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory at EPFL as well as a Professor at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Italy. He reported the results of the previous results (a four week clinical trial testing the intraneural recording electrodes and hand response, but not actually mounting the hand on amputees) late last week at this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

Powered bionic hands, even ones attached to the nervous system, have been reported before on Neurogadget, but every new iteration produced seems to come closer to truly replacing a lost appendage. This one is no different, and has a few key technical improvements over the previous: direct neural interfacing and multiple touch sensitivity.

Most powered prosthetic hands that exist today (and virtually all that are available to the general public) read the user’s motor intentions from electrodes placed on the skin over the end of severed nerve. They also rarely provide sensory feedback of any kind to the user, and are therefore inherently one-way prosthesis  as opposed to true ‘cybernetic’ attachments which integrate themselves into the normal loop of information from the brain to the body and back.

Micera’s hand is connected to the nervous system via two electrodes, implanted in two of the major nerves in the arm. One of the electrodes picks up motor information coming down from the brain and interprets them as movement for the limb, and the other encodes sensor information from the hand as a sense of touch and sends it back up to the brain. The hand supports touch sensors on it’s fingertips and the palm, and is sensitive enough to relay touch information from more than one sensor at a time so the user can feel an object as they are griping it.

Apart from the purported technological advances, one other thing makes this new cybernetic replacement notable: the imminent clinical trial which will attach the hand to an anonymous patient in Rome later this year. The trial is part of the Italian Ministry of Health’s NEMESIS project, and will connect the prosthetic to the patient for a month as a preliminary study. “We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years,” said Dr Mincera.

EPFL Press Release
The Quest for a Better Bionic Hand

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