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Researchers Create Prototype of Natural-Feeling Bionic Arm

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The arm functions more like a real arm than any other false limb.

The problem with most artificial limbs is that they can’t be used in the same way a person would use their real arm. I could reach behind me and pick something up with my real hand without having to look at it because I can feel the object’s presence. A person with an artificial limb doesn’t have it so easy; most amputees need to pay conscious attention to their artificial limbs to use them because, without tactile sensations, it’s the only way they can know what they’re actually doing. Fixing this problem is the primary goal of a team of researchers over at the Cleveland Clinic, and they’ve made some impressive progress.

The researchers have developed a prototype bionic limb system that may be more intuitive than any other false limb out there. The goal of this bionic system isn’t just to allow an amputee to pick stuff up, but to at least partially restore the feeling that comes with having a genuine limb and the natural behaviors that accompany it.

“We modified a standard-of-care prosthetic with this complex bionic system which enables wearers to move their prosthetic arm more intuitively and feel sensations of touch and movement at the same time,” lead investigator Paul Marasco, Ph.D., associate professor in Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, said in a study published in Science Robotics. “These findings are an important step towards providing people with amputation with complete restoration of natural arm function.”

“Perhaps what we were most excited to learn was that they made judgments, decisions and calculated and corrected for their mistakes like a person without an amputation,” said Dr. Marasco, who leads the Laboratory for Bionic Integration. “With the new bionic limb, people behaved like they had a natural hand. Normally, these brain behaviors are very different between people with and without upper limb prosthetics.”

With any luck, this new system, once perfected, will allow those who have suffered the loss of a limb to return to the standard of living they once had.