A multidisciplinary team based out of the University of Utah with collaborators from the University of Chicago and the Cleveland Clinic developed a prosthetic hand that gave the study’s sole volunteer his sense of touch back, according to NPR.
Kevan Walgamott, a real estate agent who had lost his left hand and part of his arm in 2002, was able to recover a portion of his ability to “feel” using the prosthetic when the University of Utah researchers and their colleagues implanted electrodes into his arm.
The LUKE arm, named in honor of the prosthetic hand in “The Empire Strikes Back”, was significantly improved when the researchers figured out how to mimic brain signals with hand movement, particularly the signals involved in touch sensations.
"The nerves that communicate and control the hand and the nerves that send information back up to the brain still exist even after the hand has been amputated,” said Jacob George, a doctoral student of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah and one of the lead authors of the study.
While other prosthetics can convert brain signals into movement, the LUKE arm was developed to provide the ability to sense through touch. “We’re tapping into the same [mechanism] that’s used in my body and your body and everyone’s body, and we’re trying to just activate it in the way it would have normally been activated,” George said. “So the sensations feel like they’re coming from their hand.”
Sharlene Flesher, a postdoctoral research associate at Stanford University, but was not involved in this study, noted that insurance companies will be reluctant to recognize the importance of sensorized prosthetics and will be a key hurdle to overcome.
In order for the LUKE arm to be able to become a commercial product, the Food and Drug Administration must first approve further testing and researchers must develop the product to be used without supervision.