U of U researchers secure DARPA funding for work toward a bionic hand controlled by user’s thoughts

Posted at 10:29 PM, Feb 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-16 00:29:39-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- The days of bionic body parts are getting closer, as researchers at the University of Utah are developing a prosthetic hand that allows those who use it to move the device using their thoughts.

Experts say amputees experience a sense of loss in several areas of their life.

“It’s quite traumatic to lose your hand because it's the way you interact with the physical world, and also with other people," said Gregory Clark, an associate professor of bio engineering at the U of U.

Clark said they hope to alleviate some of that trauma by giving amputees functionality back.

"The main idea of what we're trying to do is to take a really advanced prosthetic hand and plug it into the users own nervous system," he said.

Clark and his associates have been working on the project for about 15 years.

“The advantage of this is that the prosthetic hand would then move very much like a biological hand, and more importantly, also, feel like a biological hand,” he said.

Doctor Doug Hutchinson specializes in orthopedic hand surgery, and he said the progress has been thrilling.

"Just finally to get to that point after all this building up is exciting to us,” he said. “Can we succeed? I don't know. There's a lot we have to do still."

The team is currently undergoing trials aimed at making the virtual hand move, and they have been awarded $1.4 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Those funds from DARPA will pay for testing using human volunteers.

Researchers at the U said they could be eligible for up to $4.4 million in funding during the next five years.

“This is how we would capture and use the control signals for the hand, and this is how we would talk back to the hand to provide a sense of touch,” Clark said.

Electrodes in an array are plugged into the user's nervous system and make use of the same nerves that operated their biological hand. The goal is that when the user thinks about moving their hand, it moves.

“And when we activate each of those electrodes, he feels different things,” Clark said. “So he'll feel the tip of his ring finger, or another electrode, he'll feel the tip of his pinky finger, or the base of his picky finger, or his palm."

Researchers said the tech has exciting applications in several areas.

“Spinal cord injury, for example, could be potentially benefited through the science that we're trying to prove can work at this level,” Hutchinson said.

The project gives hope to soldiers and others who have had their lives altered by an injury.

But, for now, the research is limited to the hand.

“So we think that by restoring that hand function back to them, they'll certainly be more capable in a physical sense, but also happier," Clark said.