Amputees may be able to truly 'feel' objects for the first time later this year, after a breakthrough innovation could allow bionic limbs to be wired directly to the nervous system.
Without touch feedback, controlling robotic limbs accurately and picking up objects is very difficult.
But Silvestro Micera of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland says he has an answer - a hand which can be wired into the nerves still remaining in a patient's arm.
The new hands have touch sensors in each fingertip, as well as the palm and the wrist, which provide feedback to the brain.
The result should be that a user is able to 'feel' where objects are, and thus control the movement of the hand far more effectively.
The ability to feel objects is often cited as a critical requirement for users of 'bionic' limbs, who otherwise tend to stop using them on a regular basis.
Micera said he has completed successful tests already, and added that the first patient to receive the limb on a temporary basis will be an unnamed man currently living in Rome.
The patient, who is in his 20s and missing an arm, will receive a new hand which will be attached with electrodes directly to the median and the ulnar nerves.
Above: the 'Lifehand' during a trial in which patients were able to control its touch-enabled digits using their nervous system
"We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years," Micera said at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"This is real progress, real hope for amputees. It will be the first prosthetic that will provide real-time sensory feedback for grasping."
The new arm will be tested for a month, and if it goes well a permanent transplant could be ready by 2015, Micera said.
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