Modern medicine can provide amputees a way to replace some of their lost function through the use of prosthetic limbs and physical therapy. But even though a prosthetic can help someone who has lost part or all of an arm or a leg, it can’t replace the lost sense of touch. A research project spearheaded by the U.S. military is trying to change that.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, is working on a program that aims to improve on existing prosthetics by adding to them the sense of touch, as well as proprioception – the sensation of a limb’s position in relation to the rest of the body. The program, called Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX), focuses on prosthetics for upper-limb amputees.
DARPA says its HAPTIX program builds on progress made in earlier research programs developing neural-interface technologies. What DARPA scientists are trying to do is incorporate a touch sensor into prosthetic limbs that would give amputees additional fine-motor skills. Those sensors will connect with the peripheral nerves that amputees still have, says Doug Weber, DARPA program manager.
“HAPTIX will try to tap in to these biological communication pathways so that users can control and sense the prostheses via the same neural signaling pathways used for intact hands and arms,” Weber says.
Bringing the sensation of touch to prosthetic limbs could make amputees more likely to use them and could also eliminate the “phantom limb” sensations that some amputees feel where their amputated limb once was, explains Yahoo! Tech.
The DARPA research is still in the early stages, but what researchers are aiming for is a final 12-month trial where an amputee can take the HAPTIX system home and use it in his or her daily life. DARPA has already consulted with the Food and Drug Administration about the structure of these trials.
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