A woman who lost her arm over 20 years ago has received the first portable bionic hand, which through a series of tiny electrodes and sophisticated sensors, has restored her sense of touch.
The technology unites the portable bionic hand with a computer that translates the information coming from the artificial fingers into a language the brain can understand, which it then sends back to the body through the electrodes.
This breakthrough is the result of many years of robotic research carried out by teams in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Even though she’s central to this amazing innovation, Almerina Mascarello, who was chosen to test the prototype for six months, doesn’t feel like a superhuman. Instead, she told BBC that the prosthetic limb gave her back some of life’s simple pleasures, such as getting dressed or tying her shoes with no help. “All mundane things, really, but important. You feel complete,” she said.
Paolo Rossini, a neurologist at University Hospital Agostino Gemelli in Rome, sees the technology’s potential beyond the day-to-day. He told the BBC that “once you can control a robotic prosthesis with your brain you can think about creating one that allows more complex movements than a hand with five fingers.”
The technology underpinning the new bionic hand was developed in 2014, but at the time, the equipment necessary to support it was so big the prosthetic limb could not leave the lab.
For Dennis Aabo Sorensen, who lost his hand in 2004 in a firecracker explosion, regaining the experience of touch was “fantastic.” He told CattolicaNews that “being able to feel different textures, understanding whether objects were hard or soft and how I was holding them was just incredible.”
Researchers found that Dennis was able to distinguish between a hard, soft or medium object in 78 percent of cases. In 88 percent of cases, he could correctly describe the size and shape of specific objects such as a baseball, a glass, and a tangerine. Three years later, Almerina has been given the same ability just by carrying a small computer in a backpack.
Silvestro Micera, a neuroengineer at EPFL in Lausanne told BBC’s Fergus Walsh: “We are going more and more in the direction of science fiction movies like Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand in Star Wars – a fully controlled, fully natural, sensorized prosthesis, identical to the human hand.”
As exciting as the development is, Almerina had to give back the prototype after the six-month trial. Still, she hopes that once even more portable hands are developed and eventually commercialized, she’ll get to keep one for good.