Washington University scientists join project to give prosthetics the sense of touch | St. Louis Public Radio

Washington University scientists join project to give prosthetics the sense of touch

May 17, 2015

Scientists at Washington University have been awarded just under $1.9 million to test a device that could help people with prosthetic hands feel what they are touching. The funding is part of a larger project sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department.

Over the next three years biomedical engineering professor Dan Moran and his team will use the grant funding to test the device in macaque monkeys. If all goes well the device would then be tested on humans in clinical trials.

A rendering of the micro-electrode that Washington University scientists have designed to be implanted into the stump of amputations and integrate with nerves.
Credit courtesy Washington University

According to Moran, people who have lost a hand could be as little as five years away from being able to feel sensation from their prosthetics. The device Moran’s team is testing would be combined with research being conducted elsewhere to make that idea a reality.

Although advances in prosthetics have given motorized hands great flexibility in movement, not being able to feel what they touch limits its usefulness, said Moran, comparing it to people who are born without the ability to sense what they touch.

“If they’re holding their cup of coffee and they look away, like if you call their attention, what happens is they have no idea the orientation of their hand and because muscles are very noisy, very quickly the hand will tip and you’ll spill the coffee all over the floor,” Moran explained.

Moran and his team are focusing their research on a tiny electrode that would be implanted into the stump of an amputation and allow a prosthetic to send sensory information to the brain.

“You essentially create this very intimate interface between the implanted microelectrode and the peripheral nerve tissue, and this gives you the ability over long periods of time to either stimulate that nerve tissue or record signals in that nerve tissue and thereby sort of communicate with that nerve and provide an external link to prosthetic devices,” said Matthew MacEwan, who did much of the groundwork for creating the device for his MD/PhD dissertation.

MacEwan will continue working with Moran and his team during the next phase of the research. Moran started this project in 2004.  

Other researchers funded by the defense department are working on adding sensors to prosthetics and finding ways to send signals from those sensors to the electrode the Washington University team has developed.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.