Prosthetics: The Artificial Hand That Feels


DENVER, Colo. (Ivanhoe Newswire)— There are nearly two million people in the United States who are living with a loss of a limb. The causes vary … from vascular disease to cancer and trauma. And it’s estimated half of all amputees with powered prosthetics don’t use them. They don’t like how they feel or that they cannot feel. Now the first amputees are experiencing the sense of touch.

“My granddaughters, they grab ahold of my hand. If I’m not watching close enough, I squeeze a little tight. And they’re like ‘ow, let go!’ Because without sensation you can’t tell,” shared amputee, Keith Vonderhuevel.

Igor Spetic and Keith Vonderhuevel both lost their right hands in work accidents, both struggled with prosthetics.

“Do you get anything out of it … do you feel anything? No, you don’t,” recalled Vonderhuevel.

But now, they are on the cutting edge of technology

A team from CU Boulder, Case Western Reserve, and the Cleveland VA Medical Center are working together to give amputees prosthetics that can feel.

“The perception of touch actually occurs in the brain, not in the hand itself. So, losing the limb is really just losing the switch that turns that sensation on or off,” described Dustin Tyler, PhD, a

biomedical engineer from Case Western Reserve.

“After amputation, the wires are still there,” elaborated Jacob Segil, PhD, a research healthcare scientist at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center and an instructor of the Engineering Plus Program at University of Colorado Boulder.

(Read Full Interview)

Pressure sensors on the prosthetic hand send signals to a portable stimulator, which then sends electrical impulses into electrodes implanted into nerves in the upper arm. Those nerve bundles send signals to the brain, tricking it into thinking that it can feel fingers, even if there are no fingers to feel.

“Grabbing eggs and not smashing them may seem little to some people, but it’s a big thing to others,” explained Vonderhuevel.

An unexpected effect, it relieved Igor’s phantom pain, giving him and Keith a chance to feel good about their futures once again.

“With sensation on, I grabbed her with both hands and picked her up and could actually feel that I was holding her and not squeezing too tight. And she gave me a big hug and that one just gets to me,” Vonderhuevel shared.

Dr. Segil recently won a million-dollar career development award from the VA to continue his work. He’s started a company called Point Designs that focuses on prosthetic fingers. He hopes to create artificial limbs and fingers that function and feel like real body parts.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer; Marsha Lewis, Field Producer; Rusty Reed, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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REPORT:       MB #4784

BACKGROUND: There are currently two million Americans living with the loss of a limb. One of the main reasons, about 55 percent, for limb loss is a range of diseases like vascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and peripheral arterial disease. However, the other 45 percent is the result of trauma. In fact, about 75 percent of upper extremity amputations are the result of traumatic incidences. And, in developed countries, the main cause of lower limb amputation is circulatory dysfunction. There are 185,000 amputations done in the U.S. each year and Black Americans are up to four times more likely to have an amputation than white Americans. After amputation, patients have to undergo extraneous rehabilitation. This rehabilitation is to improve the overall quality of life for the patient physically, emotionally, and socially. Rehabilitation can include treatments for wound healing and care, activities to improve motor function, and restore the ability to accomplish tasks of daily living, strength, and endurance, fittings of prosthetics, pain management, emotional support, counseling, and at-home environmental safety adaptations.


CURRENT PROSTHETICS: Many amputees opt for the use of an artificial limb also called a prosthetic. While prosthesis advance and improve quality of life for many patients, for years artificial limbs have been uncomfortable, inefficient, and hard to emotionally connect with—a big mental hurdle for patients. While current technology has made advancements in these areas, particularly lifelike qualities, future innovations will be based on three primary factors. These factors are the demands of the amputees, technological advancements in surgery and engineering, and sufficient and sustainable healthcare funding. Prosthetic technology has made massive leaps in the past two decades allowing otherwise healthy individuals to participate in the full range of normal life responsibilities and activities. The most complex part of a prosthesis is the interface between stump, the limb remnant, and socket, the artificial limb. This contact is the main source of patient comfort and the ability to control the prosthetic.


NEW TECHNOLOGY: A remaining problem for amputees using prosthetics is the inability to feel the world around them. This lost sense of touch in the artificial limb doesn’t just affect the patient’s ability to feel texture or temperature, it deprives them of all feedback information. Patients using prosthetics often don’t know when the artificial limb has made contact with another object, how much strength they are using to touch that object. Now researchers at CU Boulder, Case Western Reserve, And the Cleveland VA Medical Center are working to understand the systems that are still at play and can be manipulated in amputees. “We’re tapping into that wire before it gets to the brain, and then the brain can’t tell whether it’s coming from the finger or from our artificial system,” said Tyler, a professor at Case Western and a VA researcher. These new prosthetics will hopefully lead to a much greater quality of life for amputees.





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Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Jacob Segil, PhD, a research healthcare scientist & instructor of the Engineering Plus Program

Read the entire Q&A