Researchers are developing a robotic arm that may one day allow amputees to regain their sense of touch and improve their movement.
Individuals who lost their arm to trauma and diseases may turn to prosthesis. Unfortunately, most of these artificial body parts do not feel much like the real thing.
The project, a collaboration between Melbourne University and St. Vincent's Hospital-based Aikenhead Center for Medical Discovery, however, could be a game changer in the field of prosthesis.
Peter Choong, from St. Vincent's Hospital, and colleagues identified a way to transmit signals from the brain to the robotic arm and are now looking for ways to return the signals that could give the sensation of touch.
The researchers used 3D printing to produce microchips for transmitting communication signals between limb tissues and electrodes, allowing for movement messages to be sent from the brain to the robotic arm.
The breakthrough could allow amputees and those who suffered from stroke to control the movement of their robotic arms just as they would control a normal limb. The researchers said that amputees can function more normally once their sense of touch is restored.
"It's really very exciting. If you're a patient who has lost a limb or part of a limb, something like this holds out hope for perhaps rebuilding them, allowing them to function much more normally than they do today," Choong said.
In essence, the researchers are working on a limb and not a tool. Currently available 3D-printed prosthetic arms can only detect pressure, albeit this allows the owner to hold and use fragile objects.
The enhanced limb though could mark a breakthrough in transmitting direct communication between the brain and arm as it will connect the patient's own tissues, muscles and nerves to the artificial limb, allowing it to feel and perceive strength and pressure.
"We're trying to build up something that can also feel and perceive strength and pressure, feeding it back to the patient through an artificial means," Choong said. "What we really want is for the machine to talk back to the brain and that's where a lot of the science is."