Motorized Prosthetic Arm That Works With Thoughts Enables Amputee To Sense Touch

Researchers Working on Robotic Arm You Can Move With Your Thoughts and Sense Touch With

Biomedical engineers from the University of Utah have created a prototype of a motorized prosthetic arm that moves with thoughts and can enable amputees to sense touch again.

Motorized Prosthetic Arm

Motorized Prosthetic Arm

The robotic arm dubbed the “LUKE Arm” is able to feel objects much like a natural human hand by sending signals to the brain, according to a study published recently in the journal Science Robotics.

With the aid of this high-tech arm, amputees will be able to differentiate between something that is hard and soft by touch. They will also be able to understand the right way to pick objects without damaging them.

The team of biomedical engineers, which included doctoral student Jacob George, ex-doctoral student David Kluger and other colleagues, was led Associate Professor Gregory Clark.

“We changed the way we are sending that information to the brain so that it matches the human body,” Clark said. “And by matching the human body, we were able to see improved results.”

He said the team was “making more biologically realistic signals.”

This particular prosthetic arm can reportedly perform delicate tasks that regular versions with metal claws or hooks cannot.

About the LUKE Arm

The robotic arm was created by DEKA Research & Development Corp., a company based in New Hampshire. Its name was inspired by the prosthetic arm of the Star Wars character Luke Skywalker in the “The Empire Strikes Back.”

The LUKE Arm, which has been in development for about 15 years, comprises mainly metal motors and parts having “skin” made of clear silicon over the hand. It is connected to a computer and powered by an external battery.

The arm features a system that lets it work with the nerves of its wearer. This is made possible through the Utah Slanted Electrode Array developed by Emeritus Distinguished Professor Richard A. Normal of the University of Utah.

This Electrode Array has 100 microelectrodes and wires. It is implanted in the forearm nerves of the wearer and then wired to a computer outside the body. The array interprets signals from the nerves while the computer converts them to digital signals to make movement possible.

The motorized prosthetic arm features sensors, which pass signals to the nerves through the Array. This enables it to feel an object and determine how to properly handle it, based on information from the brain.

The biomedical engineers were able to achieve all these through complex mathematical calculations and modeling.

‘Amazing’ Effects

Keven Walgamott, an amputee who used a prototype of the LUKE Arm, was awed by what he could do with it.

He plucked grapes successfully without crushing them using the arm. He was also able to pick an egg without applying too much pressure that could cause it to break.

“It almost put me to tears,” Walgamott said, referring to the arm. “It was really amazing. I never thought I would be able to feel in that hand again.”

The real estate agent from West Valley City, Utah, who lost his left hand along with part of his arm about 17 years ago in an electrical accident, was able to hold the hand of his wife and feel a sensation in the fingers. He managed to put on his wedding ring with the arm as well.

“One of the first things he wanted to do was put on his wedding ring. That’s hard to do with one hand,” Clark said. “It was very moving.”

There were six other test subjects, alongside Walgamott, in the study. It is estimated that there are 1.6 million amputees in America, a group in which depression is common.

One of the interesting things about the LUKE Arm is that it does not come with so-called phantom pain or limb – the perception that an amputated part is still there.

Further Work

The bioengineering team is already working on a portable version of the prosthetic arm that will not need to be wired to a computer outside the body. They want to make everything wireless and more convenient.

So far, the researchers have focused their work on amputees with lost arm below the elbow, the part where muscles for hand movement can be found. Clark says the work could also be applicable to people who lost the portion above the elbow.

The biomedical engineering associate professor expressed hope that three test subjects will be able to take home the Luke Arm next year. That will, however, depend on approval by federal regulators.

 

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