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Nation/World

February 7, 2014

Experiment adds sense of touch to artificial hand

WASHINGTON — To feel what you touch — that’s the holy grail for artificial limbs. In a step toward that goal, European researchers have created a robotic hand that let an amputee feel differences between a bottle, a baseball and a mandarin orange.

The patient only got to experiment with the bulky prototype for a week, and it’s far from the bionics of science fiction movies. But the research released Wednesday is part of a major effort to create more lifelike, and usable, prosthetics.

“It was just amazing,” said Dennis Aabo Sorensen of Aalborg, Denmark, who lost his left hand in a fireworks accident a decade ago and volunteered to pilot-test the new prosthetic. “It was the closest I have had to feeling like a normal hand.”

This isn’t the first time scientists have tried to give some sense of touch to artificial hands; a few other pilot projects have been reported in the U.S. and Europe. But this newest experiment, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, shows Sorensen not only could tell differences in the shape and hardness of objects, he also could quickly react and adjust his grasp.

“It was interesting to see how fast he was able to master this,” said neuroengineer Silvestro Micera of Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, who led the Swiss and Italian research team. “He was able to use this information immediately in a quite sophisticated way.”

Scientists have made great strides in recent years in improving the dexterity of prosthetics. But the sense of touch has been a much more difficult challenge, and is one reason that many patients don’t use their prosthetic hands as much as they’d like.

Consider: Grab something and your own hand naturally grasps with just enough force to hang on. Users of prosthetic hands have to carefully watch every motion, judging by eye instead of touch how tightly to squeeze. The results can be clumsy, with dropped dishes or crushed objects.

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