A new type of prosthetic limb developed by researchers at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency allows amputees to "feel" with their bionic fingers, allowing them to perform tasks without needing to see what they are doing.
The prosthetics give wearers "direct sensory feedback"; in one clinical trial, an amputee wearing the new type of prosthetic is able to blindly feel around and pick up small blue cubes hidden behind a curtain.
"Unlike visual feedback, direct sensory feedback allows patients to move a hand without keeping their eyes on it – enabling simple tasks, like rummaging through a bag for small items [that] are not possible with today's prosthetics," the agency says.
Developed by Case Western Reserve University researchers in concert with DARPA, the new prosthetic interacts with any residual nerves left over in the amputee's partial limb, allowing the brain to feel the sensation of touch.
Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a large number of amputations, many caused by roadside improvised explosive devices. According to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, more than 5,000 soldiers have had to have amputations, with approximately 2,000 of them considered "major amputations" (defined as a loss of a hand, foot or more).
To help those soldiers return to a sense of normalcy, DARPA created the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology program (RE-NET), which seeks to make prosthetic limbs communicate better with the brain, allowing for better control and sensation in the limb.
In a separate video released by DARPA, former Army Staff Sgt. Glen Lehman, who lost his right arm in Iraq, is shown picking up and catching a ball and a piece of cloth. He is able to rotate both the prosthetic elbow and fingers in the demonstration.
The agency says that the limbs are "already being made available to injured warfighters in clinical settings" and that the technology will soon be available to additional injured soldiers.