Prosthetics That Feel: The New Research Bringing us Closer to a Modern Miracle

Mike O'Brien

There have been some astounding developments in the world of artificial body parts in recent years, but the latest area of research could truly revolutionize the lives of amputees: prosthetics that feel.

New technology coming out of the University of Tokyo is currently building recent breakthroughs such as flexible electronic circuits that monitor body movements when applied to the skin.

Engineer Martin Kaltenbrunner is now developing bendable circuits than can be applied over large areas.

He is working with a touch sensor foil that is 2 micrometers thick and is 27 times lighter than a sheet of regular paper.

Mr. Kaltenbrunner told that the sensors are extremely flexible and can be crumpled like a tissue or conform to any object, including being applied to prosthetic limbs, which in turn could give wearers a sense of feeling.

He said in an email: "I would definitely say that our technology can be of use to treat the wounded or injured, as the main focus of our research lies on medical devices.

"Artificial limbs or prosthetics could most certainly be equipped with our ultra thin sensor sheets, but I can imagine them as well to be worn by patients for post-operative monitoring and treatment."

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is also heavily involved in exploring prosthetic limbs that can feel.

Since 2000, more than 2,000 service members have suffered amputated limbs and the agency is hoping its research on new nerve and muscle interfaces would open up a whole new world for wounded warriors.

DARPA’s Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program researched the long-term viability of brain interfaces and is moving forward with research to develop high-performance, reliable peripheral interfaces.

Such interfaces use signals from nerves or muscles to both control prosthetics and to provide direct sensory feedback. Ongoing clinical trials present compelling examples of both interface types.

Jack Judy, DARPA program manager, said in a release: "Although the current generation of brain, or cortical, interfaces have been used to control many degrees of freedom in an advanced prosthesis, researchers are still working on improving their long-term viability and performance.

"The novel peripheral interfaces developed under RE-NET are approaching the level of control demonstrated by cortical interfaces and have better biotic and abiotic performance and reliability. Because implanting them is a lower risk and less invasive procedure, peripheral interfaces offer greater potential than penetrating cortical electrodes for near-term treatment of amputees.

"RE-NET program advances are already being made available to injured warfighters in clinical settings."

Watch a DARPA video below on the latest in advanced prosthetic control