For the first time scientists have been able to create a prosthetic hand with a real-time sense of touch.
Nine years ago, Dennis Sørensen of Denmark blew up his left hand while setting up fireworks for a family holiday. He was rushed to the hospital but doctors couldn't save his hand.
Ever since his accident, he's worn a standard prosthetic that opens and shuts like the brakes on a mountain bike. It detects general movement, but no feeling.
Now, thanks to an experiment by Swiss and Italian scientists performed last year and published in the most recent issue of Science Translational Medicine, Sørenson was able to experience the sensation of touch for the first time since losing his hand.
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The team fitted Sørenson with a sensory-enhanced prosthetic hand, then surgically integrated the device into nerves in the remains of his upper arm. Using a computer, the scientists mimicked the ultra-sensitive nerve endings found in human fingertips by sending a series of electrical impulses into the device's artificial tendons up through the wired up nerves and into the brain.
Even blindfolded, Sørenson was able to interpret the impulses as a sense of touch.
"The sensory feedback was incredible," reported the 36 year-old. "I could feel things that I hadn't been able to feel in over nine years."
Sørensen said he could detect how firm a grasp he had on an object as well as its shape and texture.
"When I held an object, I could feel if it was soft or hard, round or square," he recalled.
The electrodes were removed from Sørensen's arm after one month due to safety restrictions. But the scientists said they are optimistic that they could have remained implanted and functional without damage to the nervous system for many years.
This trial is the first step towards a bionic hand like those featured in science fiction movies, the scientists said, though a commercially available version is probably years away. For now they'll focus on making the parts smaller and more portable and refining touch and movement sensitivity.
Sørensen said he was more than happy to volunteer for the experiment, both for himself and to help other amputees. He admits it was agony experiencing touch again for only a short time.