Researchers aim to create touch-sensitive, nerve-connected robotic prosthetic hand

Researchers at two academic facilities are aiming to create a first-of-its-kind bioengineered robotic hand that can grow and adapt to its environment, equipped with a living pathway to translate the robots touch sensation to the user’s brain.

Teams from both Florida Atlantic University and the University of Utah School of Medicine said they have received a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of health for the project, according to a press release.

“This National Institutes of Health grant will help our interdisciplinary team of scientists address an important challenge that impacts millions of people worldwide. By providing a better understanding of how to repair nerve injuries and trauma we will be able to help patients recover motor functionality after an amputation. This research also has broad applications for people who suffer from other forms of neurotrauma such as stroke and spinal cord injuries,” FAU college of engineering and computer science dean & professor Stella Batalama said in a press release.

The ‘living’ prosthetic will have its own peripheral nervous sytem that is directly linked to robotic sensors and actuators, according to the release. The teams aim to create a neuroprosthesis platform that will allow them to explore how neurons and behavior can operate together to regeneration the sensation of touch in an artificial limb.

Core technology comes from a robotic hand and arm developed by FAU’s BioRobotics Laboratory, according to the release. The hand is equipped with numerous sensory receptors designed to respond to changes in environment, and can sense pressure changes and interpret the data depending on an object’s weight or fragility.

The teams is exploring methods to relay this information back to the brain using living residual neural pathways to replace those destroyed by trauma. As part of the testing, neurons in the study will be kept in biocompatible microfluidic chambers which allow investigators to stimulate neurons with electrical impulses from the robot’s hand to measure in real-time how much neural tissue has been restored.

A separate set of researchers will examine how tactile information from the robotic sensors is passed onto the brain “to distinguish scenarios with successful or unsuccessful functional restoration of the sense of touch, according to the release.

“When the peripheral nerve is cut or damaged, it uses the rich electrical activity that tactile receptors create to restore itself. We want to examine how the fingertip sensors can help damaged or severed nerves regenerate. To accomplish this, we are going to directly connect these living nerves in vitro and then electrically stimulate them on a daily basis with sensors from the robotic hand to see how the nerves grow and regenerate while the hand is operated by limb-absent people,” principal investigator and FAU BioRobotics Lab director Erik Engeberg said in a prepared statement.

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