Feeling the World Again
May 19, 2013

Feeling The World Again

For many people that have fought diseases, fought in wars, or maybe gone through tragic events, they may lose a limb or function of that limb. Some choose to replace that limb some type of prosthetic to allow for everyday tasks to become more normal or easier to do. The one issue that they all face is they lose their sense of touch or strength, which can, rather than help, can hinder the person’s ability to perform certain tasks, such as maybe holding an egg without breaking it or maybe shaking someone’s hand and have a firm handshake. Engineers have recently explored and may have solved this problem by giving people with these prosthetic limbs the sense of touch.

When a person loses their limb, such as a hand, leg, or foot, they lose somatosensory feedback that allows them to sense how hard they are squeezing or pushing.  This feedback is the brain’s ability to give different parts of the body the ability to adjust the amount of force they are applying and allows the body to compensate for this. This also provides people with more balance as their brain is able to provide feedback to the body which side they should lean more on or if they are on a small platform, they are able to detect the edge of the beam.

The cool part of this newly found sense of touch was how they were able to provide this sense of touch. Using rhesus macaques, which is a type of primate, that are trained when touched, and measured the electrical impulses within their brain. They were able to map what was happening both when one of the primates was touched, but also what was going on in the brain as well. They used this data to come with an equation.  This equation would give them an ability to map out how we feel touch and the sensitivity of that touch. This would be able to map out how a person perceives touch and how much force they are able to apply to an object. This would also give them more control over their individual movements by allowing them to perceive how much force they are applying to the object itself. This allows people with prosthetic limbs the ability to have a better sense of their environment.

One day, engineers would like to be able say that these robotic limbs are more of an extension of a person’s body rather than just a tool that people can use. It’s said that science fiction is an extension of science and is the foundation of how we come up with many of the ideas that we create as engineers. In this case, the idea of creating an artificial limb that allows us to feel and do everyday tasks is a great example of how we can make science fiction a reality. It also allows people that are affected by tragedy to experience a sense of normalcy and allow them to perform everyday tasks easier and allow them to live life a little bit easier.

Image Credit: Tonis Pan / Shutterstock

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