‘It’s like you have a hand again’: A major breakthrough in robotic limb technology

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Grafting tiny bits of muscle to amputated nerves provides a way to control a robotic limb

Joe Hamilton intuitively controls a prosthetic hand using the Regenerative Peripheral Nerve Interface, or RPNI, in a lab on the University of Michigan Medical Campus. (Evan Dougherty/University of Michigan Engineering)

Researchers with the University of Michigan have announced a breakthrough in nerve-controlled prosthetic technology, which allows amputees the ability to control their hands and fingers precisely, intuitively, and in real time.

They’re claiming it as a major advancement in mind-controlled prosthetics.

“The idea of trying to get a prosthetic control signal from a nerve has been around at least as long as Empire Strikes Back,” Cindy Chestek told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. “It’s just been really hard to do because the physics is not in your favour.”

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A prosthetic leg that can sense touch makes it easier for amputees to walk

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The prosthesis tries to replicate the nervous system’s feedback loop.

The issue: People who walk on both legs rely on constant feedback between their nerves and their brain to get around. But people using a prosthesis don’t have this brain-foot loop, which can make harder to walk confidently. A new bionic prosthesis, developed by researchers from ETH Zurich and the Universities of Belgrade and Freiburg, and described in Nature Medicine today, tries to make it easier for amputees to get around by letting them “feel” surfaces again.

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