University tries hand at prosthetics

A brain-controlled prosthetic hand.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.A brain-controlled prosthetic hand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Newcastle University is pioneering bionic technology, with their biomedical engineers trialling a new prosthetic hand, which could be revolutionary in regards to the capabilities of prostheses.

Funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has allowed for the development of a bionic hand with a camera affixed to it. This camera will take instantaneous photographs of any object in front of it, allowing for an inbuilt computing system to analyse the size and shape of the object and move the hand in order to react to whatever the object is.

Effectively, this hand is able to ‘see’ and react to any given situation it is placed into, responding automatically to situations, a significant upgrade to current technology, which operates by myoelectric signals – which react to the electrical activity of the skin surface on the amputated stump.

The hand itself will bypass normal processes which require the user to see the object and stimulate the muscles in the remainder of their limb in order to trigger movement, meaning that the hand itself will act and react to objects that it is placed near to, calculating how it needs to grasp different items.

Prosthetic technology has remained similar in the past century, and with 600 new upper-limb amputees in the UK annually – and 500,000 upper limb amputees in the United States annually, adaptation to current prosthetic technology takes significant time and effort for each patient.

Dr. Kianoush Nazarpour, senior lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Newcastle University, notes that:

“responsiveness has been one of the main barriers to artificial limbs. For many amputees the reference point is their healthy arm or leg so prosthetics seem slow and cumbersome in comparison.”

This development is one step forwards towards a full project that can sense pressure and temperature, and then feed that information back through the nervous system towards the brain, leading to natural, ‘human’ reactions with bionic prosthetics.

Dr. Nazarpour notes that:

“Using computer vision, we have developed a bionic hand which can respond automatically; in fact, just like a real hand, the user can reach out and pick up a cup or a biscuit with nothing more than a quick glance in the right direction.”

In a replication of science fiction, the electrodes within the prosthetic limb would feed into the limb itself connecting the technology with organic nerve endings in order to allow direct communication between the organic brain and a synthetic prosthetic.

This technology has involved experts from Newcastle, Leeds, Essex, Keele, Southhampton and Imperial College London, and has already been trialled, with the University team working closely alongside the local Freeman Hospital to offer these prosthetics to patients.

Anne Ewing, an Advanced Occupational Therapist at Newcastle Upon Tyne’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, worked with Dr. Nazarpour, and states that:

“[t]his project in collaboration with Newcastle University has provided an exciting opportunity to help shape the future of upper limb prosthetics, working towards achieving patients’ prosthetic expectations and it is wonderful to have been involved.”

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