New prosthesis links give touch and feel

Interface scaffolds” could wire prosthetics directly into amputees’ nervous systems


16:31 March 4, 2012

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have announced a breakthrough in prosthetics that may one day allow artificial limbs to be controlled by their wearers as naturally as organic ones, as well as providing sensations of touch and feeling. The scientists have developed a new interface consisting of a porous, flexible, conductive, biocompatible material through which nerve fibers can grow and act as a sort of junction through which nerve impulses can pass to the prosthesis and data from the prosthesis back to the nerve. If this new interface is successful, it has the potential to one day allow nerves to be connected directly to artificial limbs.

It all sounds very simple as an idea, but attaching nerves to a mechanical limb isn’t like securing a wire to a terminal with a spot of solder. For one thing, you need a very special type of “solder” and that’s what organic materials chemist Shawn Dirk and robotics engineer Steve Buerger, working in collaboration with teams at the University of New Mexico and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, are trying to create.

The interface that they are working on must be biocompatible. In other words, it mustn’t harm the nerves, which are notoriously delicate. The interface must also be able to interact with the nerves and that’s very difficult to engineer because, unlike in electronics, the nerves’ specs cannot be in any way changed, so the interface material has to carry the burden. The interaction has to be very subtle and has to carry thousands of nerve impulses of all kinds every second and it must do so accurately. While it is doing this, it also has to be very flexible, very fluid and very conductive.

This is a very tall order….

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