Robert O’neal Collegiate Professor of Plastic Surgery Section Head, Plastic Surgery Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering

A Touching Discovery

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Imagine regaining the ability to feel your surroundings. U-M plastic surgeon Paul Cederna’s research lab is exploring new approaches to designing prosthetic hands capable of providing “sensory feedback.” Emerging techniques will provide some sensation and enable more natural, intuitive use of hand prostheses — breakthroughs that could pave the way to the development of a prosthetic limb with the ability to feel.

Current robotic prostheses approach the fine dexterity provided by the human hand—but these advances have outpaced developments in providing sensory feedback from artificial limb. Providing some sense of touch to the artificial hand would lessen the cognitive burden of relying solely on vision to initiate and monitor movements—while also providing tremendous psychological benefits for patients.

Cederna is studying a promising new technique called targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR), in which nerves are transferred to provide sensation to intact muscles and overlying skin to elicit sensory feedback from the prostheses. His lab is also working on a technique called the sensory regenerative peripheral nerve interface (sRPNI), in which a “bioartificial interface” transfers sensory signals directly from a prosthetic sensor to the remaining nerve. Another “next generation” approach is the use of optogenetic technology to control nerve signaling using specific light wavelengths.

The ultimate goal is to develop a prosthesis that closely mimics the natural limb, both in its ability to perform complex motor commands and to elicit conscious sensation.