University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine rehabilitation experts are joining an effort funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop an advanced prosthetic limb that “feels” and moves like a natural arm. The aim of the project is to provide sensation that will improve dexterous control of the device and give users greater intuition about how they are using their prosthetic device.

Robert Gaunt, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R), Pitt School of Medicine and a join team of researchers from Pitt, West Virginia University and Salt Lake City-based Ripple LLC will begin developing the technology with the aim of testing it it in patients’ homes within 4 years, according to a media release from the University of Pittsburgh.

“Advanced prosthetic limbs that behave like the hand and arm they are replacing have been an unrealized promise for many years largely because, until recently, the technologies to really accomplish this goal simply haven’t been available,” Gaunt says. “To make the most of these new capabilities, we have to integrate the prosthetic into the remaining neural circuitry so the patient can use it like a regular hand that, for example, can pick up a pen, gently hold an egg or turn a stuck doorknob.”
In the 18-month, first phase of the project, the team will recruit five volunteers to try to demonstrate that stimulation of the sensory portion of the spinal cord nerves, which would normally innervate the hand and forearm, can cause the amputee to feel distinct sensations of touch and joint movement in the “phantom” hand and wrist.
They also plan to insert fine-wire electrodes into the forearm muscles of able-bodied volunteers to collect and interpret muscle signals to guide movement of a virtual prosthetic hand to control hand opening and closing, as well as thumb movement. Eventually, the team aims to devise a fully implantable system for home use.