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World’s First Bionic Hand Amazes Amputee

“Amazing.”

That’s how Danish man, Dennis Aabo Sorensen, describes the latest remarkable feat of technology.

And he should know – he’s wearing it!

Having lost his lower left arm in a fireworks accident nine years ago, Sorensen has become the first person to use a revolutionary prosthetic limb that gives him a real-life sense of touch again.

It’s the ultimate marriage between biology and technology.

During an operation in Rome, four electrodes were implanted into the intact nerves in Sorensen’s upper arm. According to Professor Paolo Rossini, a neurologist at University Hospital Agostino Gemelli in Rome, the team rigorously tested the procedure on human cadavers and pigs, in order to perfect it before working on Sorensen.

These electrodes were then connected to high-tech sensors in the fingers of the bionic hand, which detect and measure the touch sensation.

Together, the electrodes and sensors form an electrical connection between the prosthetic limb and Sorensen’s brain, which allows him to experience touch and pressure in the hand.

The Italian (and Swiss) Job

The technology comes from scientists, doctors, and robotics experts at Switzerland’s renowned Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy and the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Leading the research was Professor Silvestro Micera, a neurologist at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies.

As he describes, “The hand has several sensors attached to each tendon of each finger and we can use these sensors to understand the level of force the patient performed while grasping an object. We use this force information to deliver very precise stimulation to the sensory nerves, in order to restore real-time sensory feeling into the nervous system.”

It’s so effective that Sorensen was able to gauge the weight, shape and texture of objects… even when blindfolded.

Almost in disbelief, he described the feeling: “The first time they turned it on, suddenly I could feel things that I haven’t been able to in many years – and that was quite amazing. The biggest difference was when I grabbed something, I could feel what I was doing without having to look. I could use the hand in the dark. It was intuitive to use and incredible to be able to feel whether objects were soft or hard, square or round.”

Next Step: Smaller and “Fully Implantable”

Clearly, this is a feat of both science and software. But it also required a large sacrifice on Sorensen’s part.

He had to undergo two separate operations to test the system – one to implant the electrodes and then another to remove them again.

While the results are groundbreaking, the hand is currently still a prototype and there’s plenty more work to be done.

That includes making the technology smaller and more practical. As Professor Thomas Stieglitz at the University of Freiburg in Germany, says, “We must get rid of the external cables and make them fully implantable.” The Freiburg lab will be prominent in this venture, as it created electrodes.

Another step includes making bionic hands able to feel temperature.

With that in mind, scientists believe it could take a decade before we see a commercially available bionic hand. When it is, Sorensen will be first in line.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

View More By Martin Denholm