26 February 2019
For the first time in history, a permanent robotic hand has been implanted into a human being. The revolutionary operation took place at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, and was carried out by surgeons Richard Brånemark and Paolo Sassu. The patient was a 45-year-old Swedish woman who lost her hand 17 years ago. She is currently doing well and undertaking a rehabilitation process that feels like it comes out of a science-fiction film in order to get her used to her rediscovered sense of touch.
The operation was made possible thanks to the teamwork of a group of researchers and scientists from the European DETOP project, led by the Italian Christian Cipriani, from the Institute of BioRobotics at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa. The team designed the hand, which was then created at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, with the help of a company named Prensilia. The Italian team worked with the Swedish group, led by Dr Max Ortiz Catalan, of a company called Integrum, which developed the hand.
Also participating in the project where the Swedish universities of Lund and Gothenburg, Essex University from Great Britain, the Swiss Centre of Electronics and Microtechnology, the Biomedical University of Rome, the INAIL Prosthetics Centre and the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute of Bologna.
The technical characteristics of the robotic hand
Titanium implants were fitted to the woman’s ulna and radius (the bones in the forearm). Sixteen electrodes are attached to the implants, which in turn are linked to the nerves and muscles in the stump. The pioneering piece of equipment aims to make the patient’s brain “talk” to the artificial hand. The electrodes make it possible to carry motor signals to the hand, meaning the patient can control its movement and feel touch.
The electrodes in the muscles of the stump make it possible to transmit and receive more precise signals in comparison with more “traditional” solutions, which tend to only use electrodes on the surface of the skin to send motor signals to the muscles.
Rehabilitation worthy of an Asimov book
“The patient produces a movement with a virtual hand, controlled by electrodes implanted in the forearm,” explains Max Ortiz Catalan. “Before wearing the prosthetic, training is required to strengthen the muscles in the stump.” Catalan and his team are closely following the rehabilitation process of the patient, who – strange as it may sound – is using virtual reality to pick up the real sense of touch she had before her amputation. The scientists are optimistic and think that the patient will be able to return to daily life within the space of a few weeks.
The future picture
The European project still has one more year of funding scheduled – and more could be on the way. There’s a real possibility that a second similar operation takes place in Italy, followed by a third in Sweden.
A permanent artificial hand capable of increasing the effectiveness of links between the brain and the machine represents a vital step forward not just in the realm of surgery, but also in industrial robotics. And the process that will see machines take an increasingly integral role in the wider world has only just begun.