The article details the professional history of Swiss neuroengineer professor Silvestro Micera and his pursuit of revolutionary prosthetics. His interest in them began when he was a teenager who loved reading comic books, particularly Spiderman with the eight-tentacled Doc Oc. This developed into a desire to create prosthetics that were beneficial in the real world. One of the early projects that he led was named NEBIAS, and it focused on developing a robotic hand that with sensors could send electrical signals to the patient’s nerves. This was to make the limb feel more like the lost appendage as it was directly connected to the person. This prosthetic hand was also able to determine if something was soft or hard.
Micera continued working on this technology because of the potential he saw in what they offered to amputees. The next project was called SensAgain. Since hands are incredibly difficult to replicate because of their complexity, the focus switched to prosthetic legs so that it would be faster to get the product to the market. Findings from the new product showed that when people were better able to move with their legs, it reduced other problems, such as back pain. He then shifted his plan, converting the SensAgain project into the company SensArs.
Studies from the new company have shown that patients who use the prosthetics are able to more quickly acclimate to the prosthetics. This is because the new limb is able to provide some kind of feedback during use, as well as providing some replication of the way muscles function around the prosthetic. There are some other prosthetics that use electrodes on the skin to create the same kind of simulation of the biological body part. However, some patients have said that the hands don’t feel as authentic.
Another professor, Giovanni Di Pino, has been working to understand how the brain of an amputee works when trying to use a missing body part. Di Pino has been using brain scans to better understand the relationship between the brain and missing limbs, particularly the feeling of phantom limbs. Amputees have reported feeling sensations in their missing limbs including pain and itching, which they cannot alleviate. Di Pino was particularly interested in learning about phantom limb pain. For example, a person who loses a hand will no longer have the same sensory feedback, but the nerves are still in place to try to read the sensations from the missing limb. When he worked with Micera, they discovered that a patient who had intense pain from the missing hand saw roughly a 70% reduction in that pain with Micera’s advanced prosthetic.
Both professors have warned that the products are still in the early stages of development, so a lot more research and testing is required before the prosthetics can be released to the market. However, there is a lot of potential for many different types of amputees and others who have lost use of body parts. They are even looking into restoring vision to people who are blind.
Learn more about this promising technology by reading the full article at The Prostheses That Could Alleviate Amputees’ Phantom Limb Pain.