June 23, 2015
Over the past few years, technology has provided some incredible advancement in prosthesis. From permanent integration of prosthetic limbs to the promise of perfect vision with bionic eye implants, the future of artificial limbs and organs looks promising. Patients who have lost legs have been able to stand and walk, regaining an ability that could have been lost forever. However, the one thing missing from making their artificial body part completely authentic is the ability to feel– until now.
Scientists in Austria have created an artificial leg which allows the amputee to feel realistic sensations from their foot. This “sensory enhanced” prosthetic leg can simulate sensations that not only makes the wearer safer with less chances of falling, but also helps to stop phantom pains that often occur in patients with prosthetic limbs.
In order to achieve this, a team led by Dr. Hubert Egger, at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria relocated a patient’s nerve endings so they were attached closer to where the prosthetic connects. The amputee’s stump is fitted into a shaft that contains “simulators” which are electronically attached to six sensors in the foot of the device that receive sensations from the prosthetic leg. When the sensors push against the ground, the stimulation travels to the nerve endings that then send messages to the patient’s brain, giving the artificial leg the sense of feeling.
“It feels like I have a foot again. It’s like a second lease of life,” said Wolfgang Rangger, who lost his right leg in 2007 after a blood clot caused by a stroke. He had been testing the device for six months, both in the lab and at home. The 54-year-old can now feel sensation again allowing him to run, cycle and even rock climb.
The other major benefit of the “sensory enhanced” prosthetic limb is the reduction of excruciating “phantom” pain, itching or other unpleasant sensations that many amputees endure. Egger claims that the brain can now receive real data rather than searching for information from the missing limb.
The next step for Professor Egger in robotic development is mind controlled prosthetics. Egger states that the principles are the same for the “feeling” prosthesis, except in reverse. Information is transmitted from the limb to the brain, instead of the other way around.
While the progression of prosthetics continues to unfold and offers many amputees the hope of living a life they never dreamed of, the largest complication to overcome is the high cost of producing the limbs. Many doctors envision smaller companies producing the artificial limbs to help offset the costs. Until then, prosthetics will continue to take steps in the right direction – now with feeling.