Scientists Develop an Artificial Hand That Can Feel

Amputee Igor Spetic says the device can even produce the sensation of touching different textures, such as smooth metal, fluffy cotton balls, rough sandpaper, and soft hair.

Over the past few years, artificial hands have come a long way in terms of dexterity. They can grasp, shake hands, point, and, usefully, make the "come hither" gesture.

Now, researchers at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University have made significant progress in building a prosthetic hand that provides something like a sense of touch. 

The hand, which you can see put to use in a demonstration in the video above, has 20 sensitive spots that can perceive other objects' physicality. Implants that connect those spots to nerves in the patients arm have continued to work 18 months after installation, which MIT Technology Review reports, notes is a important milestone since "electrical interfaces to nerve tissue can gradually degrade in performance."

Hands are more than tools for manipulating the physical world. They are also tools of perception, reporting sensations such as heat, texture, contact. These two systems, output and input, work together, helping us to know when our grasp is tight or whether we've reached the object on a shelf that's just out of view. The difficulty of building a machine that can perceive tactile information and report it back to the brain has become the roadblock for a truly hand-like prosthetic.

The new prosthetic is a step towards creating this feedback loop. And it can do more than sense simple contact. Dustin Tyler, of Case Western, can adjust the device to signal different textures. Igor Spetic, who is using the hand in the above video, "says sometimes it feels like he’s touching a ball bearing, other times like he’s brushing against cotton balls, sandpaper, or hair," according to the Technology Review report.

The seven-millimeter-long cuff
electrode (Russell Lee/Case
Western Reserve University)

At the heart of the technology is a custom version of an interface known as a cuff electrode. Three nerve bundles in the arm—radial, median, and ulnar—are held in the seven-millimeter cuffs, which gently flatten them, putting the normally round bundles in a more rectangular configuration to maximize surface area. 

Then a total of 20 electrodes on the three cuffs deliver electrical signals to nerve fibers called axons from outside a protective sheath of living cells that surround those nerve fibers. This approach differs from other experimental technologies, which penetrate the sheath in order to directly touch the axons. These sheath-penetrating interfaces are thought to offer higher resolution, at least initially, but with a potentially higher risk of signal degradation or nerve damage over the long term. And so they have not been tested for longer than a few weeks.

Thus far, the device has only been tested in the lab, but researchers are hoping that further development and study could bring it to the market within the next decade.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



More in Technology

Just In