Bringing a human touch to artificial limbs

Dr. Kevin Englehart works on a prosthetic arm. His team's research will help give future prosthetics the ability to feel.

Providing affordable prosthetic hands to amputees is a dream come true for a team of researchers at the University of New Brunswick’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

Located on the Fredericton campus, the Institute is a world-renowned research facility in biomedical engineering and one of the oldest solely dedicated to this field. It is also the region’s prosthetic fitting centre where amputees are provided with state-of-the-art intelligent artificial limbs.

Complete movement

Dr. Kevin Englehart is part of the team of scientists from across North America who have developed Proto 2, a prosthetic arm that has many of the features of a human arm and can move 27 different ways. This latest advancement in prosthetic limb development has earned the team a Popular Mechanics 2007 Breakthrough Award.

What makes the Proto 2 different from all other prosthetic arms is that it is designed to operate using not only muscles, but nerve fibres, and the brain. This will give users the ability to control the arm by thinking. Proto 2 has 80 sensors in the fingertips and palm, which will send signals back to the brain, giving users the ability to feel with the new arm.

Proto 2, still under development, was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the United States, and is managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Affordable functionality

A more recent initiative is a project funded by the Atlantic Innovation Fund for the institute to develop a prosthetic hand that retains most of the dexterity of a human limb, but is much more affordable than what is currently available.

“This device is meant specifically for amputations below the wrist – which affects by far the largest portion of amputees,” explains Englehart.

There are roughly 10,000 people in Canada with upper limb loss. There are 200 new amputations every year.

Englehart and his team are working side-by-side with researchers from the Université de Moncton, who are fingertip sensor developers to detect when an object is being held and with the right force. Meanwhile, UNB’s Biomedical Institute is developing the hand itself, and the man-machine interfaces to help control it.

“We will develop the computer that interprets the muscle activity of the user and relays control information to the prosthesis.”

The team at the Institute will conduct clinical trials toward the end of the project, with the goal of transitioning the device to commercial and clinical reality.

Their work, he says, represents a leap forward for artificial limbs.

“This development will be a huge improvement over what is available right now.”

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