This past week, scientists in Rome unveiled the first portable bionic hand that allows users to regain a sense of touch. While there have been past experiments in the development of similar artificial limbs, none have left the lab as they required extensive external sensory and computer equipment to function. The technology has thankfully progressed quickly enough though that it can now fit in a backpack.
The development of the hand was no easy task, as the assembled team contained engineers, surgeons, neuroscientists, and electronics/robotics specialists from Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. The prosthesis contains a series of sensors that detect whether an object is soft or hard, which is then relayed to the computer housed in the user’s backpack. From there, information then makes its way to the user’s brain via a series of tiny electrodes that are implanted in the nerves of the upper arm.
The first recipient is a woman named Almerina Mascarello who lost her hand almost 25 years ago in a steel factory. In blindfolded tests, she was successfully able to tell if objects are hard or soft. Speaking to the BBC, she said that “the feeling is spontaneous as if it were your real hand; you’re finally able to do things that before were difficult, like getting dressed, putting on shoes – all mundane but important things – you feel complete.”
Unfortunately, Almerina was only able to keep the hand for six months, as it was a prototype, but there’s hope the technology will make it to the market soon. It’s not the teams only goal though, as researchers have stated that ultimately they’ll be able to make a prosthetic that surpasses the human hand. Once motor control and the sense of touch has been perfected, we could start seeing limbs with more than five digits.