This bionic arm could help amputees regain a true sense of touch

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute in Lausanne and Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Italy report that they successfully wired a bionic hand into the nerves on a man’s amputated arm, allowing him to experience the sensation of touch in real time. The man is the first person to receive it as a part of a clinical trial, which is a step toward making the prosthetic widely available.

“The sensory feedback was incredible,” Dennis Aabo Sørensen, the Danish man who received the prosthetic, said in a release. “I could feel things that I hadn’t been able to feel in over nine years. When I held an object, I could feel if it was soft or hard, round or square.”

Bionic hand that feels

Bionic limbs are allowing amputees to accomplish formerly impossible tasks, including walking and picking objects up just by thinking. While limbs capable of feeling have been invented in the past, the European researchers said this is the most sensory-rich version to date. They attached the first version of the hand to a man in 2009, and have since improved its design. They debuted a prototype of the current hand a year ago.

Sørensen described how his previous prosthetic hand, which was not wired into his nerves, required him to monitor what he was doing at all times. Because he couldn’t feel the hand, it was possibly to accidentally crush whatever it was holding.

The hand developed by the European team works via electrodes planted in the wearer’s arm. They convey weak electrical signals to the nerves. Researchers were worried that Sørensen’s nerves would have reduced sensitivity after nine years without use, but it turned out to not be a problem.

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Sadly, after a month of use, Sørensen had to give up the bionic arm. It’s currently in the clinical study phase, which means the research team is interested in trying it on other patients. The researchers are also interested in making the electronics for the hand smaller, which would make it more portable. They also plan to further improve its sensitivity and awareness of its fingers.