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The “Luke” prosthetic arm can restore the sensation of touch in amputees

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This prosthetic arm connects to nerves and is controlled by thought.

The U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched its neuroprosthetics program, called HAPTIX, in 2014. The goal was to develop an advanced robotic arm that would restore the sensation of touch to amputees and help them move more intuitively on a daily basis. Now, a mere three years later, the Utah-based research team led by professor Gregory Clark is closer than ever to realizing the dream of nerve-stimulating prosthetic limbs, a dream shared by amputees and Sci-Fi aficionados alike.

During the last year, the research team has been working with amputee Kevin Walgamott to develop the “Luke” arm, named for the prosthetic hand fitted to Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Walgamott underwent surgeries that connected electrodes to the nerves and muscles in his arm and, once hooked up to the “Luke,” participated in a slew of tests that nearly brought tears to his eyes as he experienced the sensation of touch for the first time in 14 years.

The Washington Post has Walgamott discussing the sensation:

“When I went to grab something, I could feel myself grabbing it. When I thought about moving this or that finger, it would move almost right away,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe it except that it was like I had a hand again.”

The next year of testing revealed that the addition of physical sensations to prosthetics drastically increased motor function, while diminishing the discomfort known as “phantom limb pain.”

The company responsible for this feat of modern technology is DEKA, the same company that produced the Segway. The system relies on a device called the Utah Slanted Electrode Array, which is implanted into the nerves, with more electrodes reaching into the muscles. It took the team a long time to determine which nerves corresponded to hand motions, but the work has all paid off as DEKA brings us into the future.

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