A robotic hand that restores* the sense of touch could soon be a reality.
Researchers are working on untangling the complex brain patterns needed to replicate natural hand actions and unlock the full potential of bionic limbs.
University of Chicago Associate Professor Sliman Bensmai, whose research has allowed a paralysed* man regain his sense of touch, told the Australasian Neuroscience Society Annual Scientific Meeting last week that they were making progress into reproducing dynamic hand actions.
He said he was hopeful the technology would one day allow amputees* and those paralysed from the neck down to not just control a limb with their mind, but to feel the pressure of someone else’s hand in theirs, or master the different pressures needed to accurately grasp* lots of objects.
Australian surgeons led by The Alfred in Melbourne have conquered the first hurdle of limb bionics; fitting the first “mind-controlled” robotic arm to more than five amputees in the past year.
But Associate Prof Bensmai has gone a step further by figuring out the brain activity patterns that occur in animals when they reach, grasp and pick up objects.
This became the basis for the development of a computer interface that was surgically implanted in the brain of a 28-year-old man, completely paralysed following a car accident.
Electrodes* in his brain were connected to a robotic arm that sent sensory feedback from the brain to the hand, allowing him to tell the difference between touch on individual fingers and his palm.
“The hand is amazing and touch is a very complex thing,” Associate Prof Bensmai said.
“Any time you touch an object you need to know that you’re touching it, where you’re touching it, and you need to know how much pressure you’re exerting on it.
“Also if you reach towards a bunch of objects, your hand is pre-shaped very precisely to the shape of that object, long before you make contact with it. It’s a very sophisticated system we’re trying to create algorithms for.”
Melbourne’s Alan Newey, who lost his arm in a workplace accident 17 years ago, was the first Australian to undergo the targeted muscle reinveration surgery to realign nerves in his amputated arm to new target muscles.
Alan has mastered the grip function, allowing him to carry shopping and cook meals, and is now working on rotating his wrist.
“It’s like you’re becoming a whole person again,” Mr Newey said.
“The more functions you regain, the less you need to rely on other people, and you get that sense of achievement back.”
restores: Brings back to an original or normal condition
paralysed: partly or wholly incapable of movement
amputees: a person who has had a limb amputated (cut off)
grasp: a firm hold or grip
electrodes: a conductor through which electricity enters or leaves an object, substance, or region
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Activity 1. Mind Games
Time: Allow 20 minutes.
Summarise the Kids News article on the new robotic hand being developed using the 5 W’s. Write a detailed sentence for each.
Extension: Brainstorm a list of things that this robotic hand could allow a person such as Melbourne man Alan Newey to do, that he couldn’t do before this technology was invented.
Curriculum links: English
Activity 2. Programming in Motion
Time: Allow 30 minutes to complete this task.
Work with a partner to write a set of steps for them to perform an action such as kicking or throwing a ball. Your instructions need to be very detailed, a bit like coding or programming in a computer. Write the instructions including every possible movement your partner would need to do to accurately perform that function. Once you’ve written the steps, read them out to your partner while they do the moves to see if your instructions allow them to perform that function. You may need to add things as you go. Swap roles and do the steps your partner has written for you.
Extension: Swap with other pairs of students to test their instructions for different actions.
Curriculum links: Design & Technologies, Personal & Social
With a partner see if you can you identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.
Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.
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