The University of Utah team have already developed a state-of-the-art robotic limb dubbed the "Luke" arm by its makers after the advanced prosthesis wielded by Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movie. Jacob George, a bioengineering PhD student, said the hope is now to bring this same technology and target lower-limb amputees.
"Restoring intuitive motor control and sensory feedback will likely bring the same benefits to lower-limb amputees that we've demonstrated in upper-limb amputees. Another big focus in the research community is geared towards spinal-cord injury patients. Our device is inherently capable of aiding spinal-cord injury patients as well, if we flip the way we are interacting with the human nervous system," he told Sputnik.
This approach, say the researchers, allows signals like sensations to be transmitted back via the nervous system and create a 'looped system' — like a human limb — where the hand's feeling and movements inform each other.
"By adding sensory feedback, it becomes a closed loop system that mimics biology. The goal is to get prosthetic technology to a point where someone using it wouldn't have to think through every movement to pick up a cup. They wouldn't even have to look at the cup. They would simply move the hand toward it using their brain and existing nervous system, feel it and pick it up," Mr. George said.
Until now, even the most cutting-edge prosthetic hands available can make sophisticated movements — but they require complicated, and often imprecise, methods of operation. Some rely on tilt motions by the user's foot and others on movements by the muscles remaining in the user's arm.
Now the scientists are hoping to expand their work further in the coming months ahead especially involving spinal-cord injury patients.
"In spinal-cord injury patients, the sensors in the hand still work, but the pathway (the spinal cord) to communicate that information back to the brain is broken. In addition, the hand is still present, but the signals to control the hand are not. Using the exact same device we use in amputees, we could instead provide motor information (reanimating the individual's body) and record sensory information (using the natural sensors still present in the body)," Mr. George told Sputnik.
Kevin Walgamott volunteered to take part the Utah experimental program and allowed surgeons to implant electrodes into the nerves of his arm. Having lost his hand and arm in an accident 14 years ago, he was keen to work with the researchers.
He found himself hooked up to a computer as the scientists created a computer program to help him feel the touch of a virtual wall.
"It was stunning. I could actually feel the wall. I could feel the bumps along it. It almost brought tears to my eyes," he said.
The research has been partly funded by the US military's defense advanced research projects agency with the goal of developing an advanced robotic arm to help amputees feel and move intuitively.