The bionic hand: how a crazy idea has become a medical breakthrough

The bionic hand: how a crazy idea has become a medical breakthrough

More than two decades ago, a hand prosthesis able to give back a sense of touch to amputees would have been dubbed as science fiction. Today this has been proved possible, and now the goal is to make this technology available for as many patients as possible

In December 2016 Loretana Puglisi, an Italian entrepreneur from Palazzolo Acreide, near Siracusa, lost her left hand in a work-related accident. At the time she could never have imagined that two years later she would be able to feel the softness of the hair of a cat once more.

For about six months she tested a surgically implanted bionic prosthesis, which is the last prototype developed under research that started more than 20 years ago. Silvestro Micera, a professor of bioengineering at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa and the Polytechnic of Lausanne, is one of the researchers who have led this study.

“In particular I deal with neuroengineering. This means recovering the connection between external systems, such as prostheses, and people's nervous systems. The aim is to recreate, for example, tactile, natural sensations even after they have lost a hand,” Micera says.

He explains that patients who have lost a leg often don't use their prosthesis, as the ones currently available on the market don’t give enough added value to their quality of life than the cosmetic solutions. 

“When we did the first implantation in 2008, the real question was: can we give back sensations to an amputee using electrodes implanted in peripheral nerves? At that time we absolutely didn't know, it was a bet. Now we have shown we can do it. We have demonstrated that the patient can use this information during real tasks, so it has an impact on everyday life. The current step is to make this thing clinically usable for many patients for a long time.”

Micera underlines the importance of the support given by the European Union to this ambitious research: “The first project I worked on was Grip, an Esprit Long Term Research, which was the ‘father’ of the EU programme Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). Afterwards came the FET projects CyberHand, Neurobotics, Nebias. Over 15-20 years, all these studies have helped us realise a crazy idea, one that could hardly have been funded by traditional channels. This idea has been made available to few patients so far, but they are real patients with real conditions.”

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