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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Southampton scientists to improve prosthetic limbs

Published: 5 July 2015

Scientists at the University of Southampton are aiming to improve the function of artificial limbs.

They are part of a £1.4m project that will focus on producing new technologies to provide prosthetic hand users and other assistive devices a realistic sense of touch, including pressure, shear and temperature.

In addition, a ‘virtual hand’ will provide information on the sense of the hand’s position and movement, known as proprioception. Finally, the system will feedback signals to a form the brain understands and stimulate the nervous system to help the user control the hand.

Building this level of feedback into prosthetic devices will enable much higher levels of function for people who have lost their limbs, than is currently available. It will also allow more natural use of the prosthesis, for example by enabling a user to reach out and pick up a glass while maintaining eye contact with a friend.

This will advance the field of prosthetics, provide enhanced function to prosthesis users and decrease the learning time involved when acquiring a new device. The technology will also have applications for patients with neurological conditions where reduced sensation is a factor.

Southampton’s role specifically will be to develop fingertip ‘touch’ sensor systems for prosthetic hands. The output signals can be potentially fed back into the nervous system. This sensor system development would play a key role in the rapidly developing areas of neuroprosthetics, robotics, and a wide range of other man-machine interfaces. This work will build upon Dr. Jiang’s smart body interface research, particularly in the areas of assistive and rehabilitative devices.

Dr Liudi Jiang, an Institute for Life Sciences (IfLS) member who is leading the Southampton team, says: “Being able to “feel” and “handle” objects like natural hand would enable prosthetic hand users to conduct daily tasks e.g. tie a shoelace without looking at it or to pick up a delicate object without damaging it, completely transforming user experience and outcome of artificial limbs.

“Being part of this exciting project in collaboration with leading UK researchers, , we will develop the crucial fingertip sensor system, which can produce key sensory signals resembling responses from natural skin. We hope that such a system could also make significant contribution to next generation neuroprosthetics and assistive devices in general.”

The collaborative project is led by Newcastle University, with Leeds, Imperial, Southampton and Essex, and Keele universities.

 

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