eLife digest | Intraneural stimulation elicits discrimination of textural features by artificial fingertip in intact and amputee humans
Our hands provide us with a wide variety of information about our surroundings, enabling us to detect pain, temperature and pressure. Our sense of touch also allows us to interact with objects by feeling their texture and solidity. However, completely reproducing a sense of touch in artificial or prosthetic hands has proven challenging. While commercial prostheses can mimic the range of movements of natural limbs, even the latest experimental prostheses have only a limited ability to ‘feel’ the objects being manipulated. Oddo, Raspopovic et al. have now brought this ability a step closer by exploiting an artificial fingertip and appropriate neural interfaces through which different textures can be identified.
The initial experiments were performed in four healthy volunteers with intact limbs. Oddo, Raspopovic et al. connected the artificial fingertip to the volunteers via an electrode inserted into a nerve in the arm. When moved over a rough surface, sensors in the fingertip produced patterns of electrical pulses that stimulated the nerve, causing the volunteers to feel like they were touching the surface. The volunteers were even able to tell the difference between the different surface textures the artificial fingertip moved across.
The temporary electrodes used in this group of volunteers are unsuitable for use with prosthetic limbs because they can easily be knocked out of position. Therefore, in a further experiment involving a volunteer who had undergone an arm amputation a number of years previously, Oddo, Raspopovic et al. tested an implanted electrode array that could, in principle, remain in place long-term. This volunteer could also identify the different textures the artificial fingertip touched, with a slightly higher degree of accuracy than the previous group of intact volunteers. Further studies are now required to explore the potential of this approach in larger groups of volunteers.