A groundbreaking new piece of technology is allowing amputees like Keven Walgamott to touch and feel things again like they haven’t been able to in years.
Kevin lost his hand and arm in an electrical accident 17 years ago, and since then, many tasks that the rest of us find to be simple have been very difficult for him. That all changed when he headed to the University of Utah recently to test out the new “LUKE Arm,” which is named after the robotic arm that Luke Skywalker receives in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The arm was developed by a team of researchers led by University of Utah biomedical engineering associate professor Gregory Clark, and they designed it to mimic the way a human hand feels objects by sending the appropriate signals to the brain.
“We changed the way we are sending that information to the brain so that it matches the human body. And by matching the human body, we were able to see improved benefits,” explained UOU biomedical engineering doctoral student Jacob George. “We’re making more biologically realistic signals.”
This means that amputees who wear the arm can sense the touch of something soft or hard, understand how to pick it up, and complete intricate tasks that would otherwise be impossible for them with a standard prosthetic that has metal hooks or claws for hands.
“It almost put me to tears,” Walgamott said of using the arm in clinical tests. “It was really amazing. I never thought I would be able to feel in that hand again.”
While using the arm, Kevin was able to pluck grapes without crushing them, pick up an egg without cracking it, and hold his wife’s hand with a sensation in the fingers that allowed him to feel her the way an able-bodied person would.
“One of the first things he wanted to do was put on his wedding ring. That’s hard to do with one hand,” said Gregory “It was very moving.”
The LUKE Arm, which has been in development for fifteen years, is made mostly of metal motors and parts with a clear silicon “skin” over the hand. The arm is powered to an external battery and wired to a computer, and it has sensors in it that send signals to the nerves to mimic the feeling the hand gets upon grabbing something.
“Just providing sensation is a big deal, but the way you send that information is also critically important, and if you make it more biologically realistic, the brain will understand it better and the performance of this sensation will also be better,” Gregory explained.
The team is hoping that by 2020 or 2021, three subjects will be able to take LUKE Arms home for use. Find out more about this incredible piece of technology in the video below.