A nerve-connected bionic hand could provide amputees with an almost natural sense of touch

Nerve-connected bionic hand and smart trousers development funded

Research into innovative health care technologies including a Star Wars-like bionic hand, smart trousers for disabled people and biosensors that can be tattooed on skin have received £5.3m from EPSRC.

Part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) initiative to harness high-tech developments for the benefit of people in need of assistive and rehabilitative care, the projects will bring together some of the leading British research institutions.

The University of Newcastle is leading the bionic hand project, awarded £1.4m of funding, which aims to develop a nerve-connected artificial hand that would provide a realistic sense of touch to amputees.

"Until now one of the limiting factors has been the technology to allow the hand to communicate with the brain,” said Kianoush Nazarpour, a lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Newcastle University and leader of the study.

"If we can design a system that allows this two-way communication it would help people to naturally reach out and pick up a glass, for example, whilst maintaining eye contact in a conversation, or pick up an apple without bruising it.

The bionic hand, to be equipped with novel fingertip temperature and pressure sensors, would allow the amputees to control their prosthetic limbs more naturally and therefore get the grasp of the technology more quickly. By communicating directly with the brain, the bionic hand could also offer a solution to those patients, who can’t benefit from existing technologies.

"The current designs are like a plug and socket,” said Rory O'Connor, senior lecturer in rehabilitation medicine at the University of Leeds. “The socket fits over the end of the limb and picks up signals from the muscles. The prosthesis fits onto this and by learning to flex certain muscles the patient can work the hand.”

The problem, O’Connor said, is that in some patients, the muscle damage is too severe for them to be able to control the prosthesis.

"What patients tell us is they want something that is more intuitive and more closely replicates the natural movement and feel of a real hand,” he said.

Another project, led by the University of Bristol will focus on development of robotic clothing that could assist those with mobility impairments, disabilities or age-related weakness.

Awarded £2m by the EPSRC, the Wearable Soft Robotics for Independent Living study, hopes to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities and reduce their dependence on human helpers.

"This is the first time soft robotics technologies have been used to address the many rehabilitation and healthcare needs in one single type of wearable device,” said Bristol University’s Jonathan Rossiter, the leader of the team.

“Many existing devices used by people with mobility problems can cause or aggravate conditions such as poor circulation, skin pressure damage or susceptibility to falls, each of which is a drain on health resources,” he said, adding that smart clothes equipped with artificial muscles could not only eliminate these problems but also cut overall healthcare costs by reducing the need to invest in wheelchairs and stairlifts.

Combining full body monitoring technologies with electrical stimulation and intelligent materials, the smart apparel would be able to react to the particular needs of each user, stimulating his or her own muscles to get stronger.

The final project, awarded £1.86m as part of the EPSRC funding round, aims to develop novel cheap and disposable biosensors that could be used as temporary tattoos or inside smart watches.

The technology will allow doctors to monitor how their patients use equipment provided to them and how they follow advice following major health problems.

The research will also develop software that uses the biosensor information to support users with their equipment or exercises in their own home.

“The new information we will gain from this research will be invaluable, and through a feasibility study, it is our aim to produce a system ready for future technical / clinical trials within the NHS,” said Christopher James, of the University of Warwick, who leads the project.

According to EPSRC, there are currently about 11.6 million disabled people living in the UK today with various levels of mobility impairments. As the country’s population is expected to age, these numbers may grow even larger.

“These research studies will improve patients’ lives, allow greater independence and benefit patients with a wide range of mobility and co-ordination difficulties,” Philip Nelson, chief executive of EPSRC commented.

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