A new kind of prosthetics

Published: Sep. 9, 2020 at 10:31 AM EDT
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There are nearly two million people in the United States who are living with a loss of a limb. The causes vary … from vascular disease to cancer and trauma. And it’s estimated half of all amputees with powered prosthesis don’t use them. They don’t like how they feel or that they cannot feel. Now the first amputees are experiencing the sense of touch.

“My granddaughters, they grab ahold of my hand. If I’m not watching close enough, I squeeze a little tight. And they’re like ‘ow, let go!’ Because without sensation you can’t tell,” shared amputee, Keith Vonderhuevel.

Igor Spetic and Keith Vonderhuevel both lost their right hands in work accidents, both struggled with prosthetics.

“Do you get anything out of it … do you feel anything? No, you don’t,” recalled Vonderhuevel.

But now, they are on the cutting edge of technology

A team from CU Boulder, Case Western Reserve, and the Cleveland VA Medical Center are working together to give amputees prosthetics that can feel.

“The perception of touch actually occurs in the brain, not in the hand itself. So, losing the limb is really just losing the switch that turns that sensation on or off,” described Dustin Tyler, PhD, a

biomedical engineer from Case Western Reserve.

“After amputation, the wires are still there,” elaborated Jacob Segil, PhD, a research healthcare scientist at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center and an instructor of the Engineering Plus Program at University of Colorado Boulder.

Pressure sensors on the prosthetic hand send signals to a portable stimulator, which then sends electrical impulses into electrodes implanted into nerves in the upper arm. Those nerve bundles send signals to the brain, tricking it into thinking that it can feel fingers, even if there are no fingers to feel.

“Grabbing eggs and not smashing them may seem little to some people, but it’s a big thing to others,” explained Vonderhuevel.

An unexpected effect, it relieved Igor’s phantom pain, giving him and Keith a chance to feel good about their futures once again.

“With sensation on, I grabbed her with both hands and picked her up and could actually feel that I was holding her and not squeezing too tight. And she gave me a big hug and that one just gets to me,” Vonderhuevel shared.

Dr. Segil recently won a million-dollar career development award from the VA to continue his work. He’s started a company called Point Designs that focuses on prosthetic fingers. He hopes to create artificial limbs and fingers that function and feel like real body parts.

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