Restoring Touch

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to lose your sense of touch. I mean, it’s tough to imagine losing your hand or arm, and all the differences that would entail for day to day life, but it’s something small like losing the sensation of touch that really escapes me. With prosthetics these days you can regain the ability to pick things up and interact with the world around you in a lot of the ways that you would lose along with a limb, but up to this point regaining touch has been impossible, remaining firmly in the realm of science fiction cybernetics. Well not anymore. A group from the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University has been working to restore touch through prosthetics, and their new paper published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences promises a bright future for prosthetics users.


Using non-human primates (macaques to be precise), the group integrated their prosthetics into the brains of monkeys at the somatosensory cortex. Their goal was to have their prosthetic transfer the sensation of touch as biometric feedback to the brain. The group found that the new prosthetic technology could function as well as the monkey’s own hand in transmitting tactile stimulation. Basically, they were able to communicate touch via their prosthetic. Their technology, as it is focused on hand use and manipulation, is intended for use by quadriplegic patients and amputees who have lost an arm or a hand. Perhaps the only drawback to this finding is that it requires the integration of the prosthetic into the brain of the patient, which could be both difficult and dangerous. Despite that, tactile sensation helps to offer a much greater degree of dexterity in control, as it provides a lot of information about the object you’re interacting with. Feeling shifts in weight and points of contact allow more controlled and natural manipulation of objects. That’s a pretty big deal when it comes to trying to regain the full use of your body.

This is, like most experimental technology, a long way off for everyday prosthetics users. We may not see prosthetics that can restore the sensation of touch for years. But this is still a step forward; a step towards more integrated and intuitive prosthetics that will help offset the loss of a limb.  At this point, prosthetics rely on the patient learning a whole new means of interacting with their world, making it difficult to feel natural when trying to pick up a glass or open a door. If prosthetics could restore touch though, that transition would be made a whole lot smoother and probably make life a lot easier.

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