A person may undergo limb amputation due to various reasons such as trauma, cancer, vascular disease, diabetes, or infection. While this procedure would surely have severely debilitated an amputee’s lifestyle in the past, current advances in research and medical technology have ensured the creation of a host of different prosthetic limbs to help amputees today stay self-reliant.
Most of these prostheses are extremely expensive and therefore inaccessible to many people. But this may not be a cause for concern for too long.
Recently, MIT announced that they have collaborated with engineers from Shanghai Jiao Tong University to create a “soft, lightweight, and potentially low-cost neuroprosthetic hand”.
The team engineered their device using a stretchy material called EcoFlex. It consists of a 3D printed palm with five fingers attached. Like other available prostheses, these fingers can bend in different ways to help the bearer perform various tasks.
Unlike other prostheses, however, the soft device depends on a pneumatic system that inflates each finger like a balloon to achieve 5 specific bending positions. The researchers preprogrammed these positions into the hand’s controller.
According to the press release, the device looks like it could belong to Baymax from the movie “Big Hero 6”.
So how does it work?
Upon wearing the device, the amputee imagines one of the 5 grip positions that they want the hand to take. This sends electric signals from their brain to the junction between their residual limb and the prosthesis. Here, electromyography sensors pick up these signals and translate them into finger movement.
The team asked two volunteers to test their device’s effectiveness and compare it with the more expensive neuroprosthesis available. After completing the 15-minute training, the volunteers performed simple tasks like lifting a pen or turning a page. Both found that the inflatable neuroprosthesis was comparable in dexterity and function to their counterparts.
One of the volunteers was even able to pet a cat.
The most interesting part, however, is that the blindfolded volunteer was able to “feel” which one of his fingers was being pressed by the researchers using the incorporated tactile feedback pressure sensors. Once developed further, this feature could potentially be life-changing for amputees.
Accessibility for amputees
While the neuroprosthesis device is currently valued at around $500, “There’s huge potential to make this soft prosthetic very low cost, for low-income families who have suffered from amputation,” says professor Xuanhe Zhao, (mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT).
Watch one of the volunteer use the hand in the video below!