Prosthetic limbs may soon be able to ‘feel’

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International researchers have created a brain-robot connection that provides more naturalistic sensations to amputees when they are walking on their prosthetics. The researchers tested their new system on three lower-limb amputees with brain implants by assessing their ability to do standard walking tasks such as climb stairs. They found the new prostheses increased the participants’ speed and their confidence levels.

Journal/conference: Nature Communications

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41467-024-45190-6

Organisation/s: ETH Zürich, Switzerland

Funder: European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon
2020 research and innovation program (FeelAgain grant agreement no.
759998), from Gebert Ruf Stiftung (InnoBooster, MYLEG, GRS–096/21),
from Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) (MOVE-IT no. 197271),
from project IDEJE by Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia (DiabeticReTrust
no. 7753949), by project (ID: 93022925/ 94030803) of the St.
Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg (for N.P.), by Sirius University
of Science and Technology project: NRB-RND-2115 (for P.M.).

Media release

From: Springer Nature

A new method to help enhance naturalistic sensations from robotic limbs is reported in Nature Communications. The approach was found to improve mobility and reduce the mental effort required in patients using robotic lower-limb protheses, compared to previous technologies. The findings could help produce more realistic sensations in individuals using limb protheses, the authors suggest.

Injuries and neurological conditions can disturb the communication between the brain and the body, disrupting the ability of individuals to perceive sensations naturally. Prosthetic or robotic limbs can be interfaced with the nervous system and communicate with the brain, but evoking naturalistic sensations, such as touch, has been challenging.

Stanisa Raspopovic and colleagues took inspiration from biological systems to design a neuro-robotic stimulation protocol to restore naturalistic sensations from robotic lower-limbs during walking. They then tested the protocol on three lower-limb amputees with neural implants. When assessing the patients during tasks, such as climbing stairs, the neuroprosthetic legs increased the speed participants climbed stairs and also their self-reported confidence levels. The authors suggest that biomimetic neurostimulation, derived from a computational model replicating neurons on the soles of the feet, enabled patients to concentrate on other things while walking and is less taxing on the brain.

New technologies, inspired by nature, could help emulate natural neural functions and help amputees and individuals after a disease or an injury by restoring a fundamental aspect of the sensory experience, the authors suggest.

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