The Hand of Fate

Sensory Prosthetic Hand
An amputee uses a newly designed prosthetic hand to “sense” the shape and resistance of objects he cannot see.

I was out to lunch with a couple of friends today, celebrating the end of the semester and maybe the last time I’ll be seeing them for a while, with graduation right around the corner. We were chatting about our plans for the future and the crazy professors we’d had during school, and somehow we got onto the topic of neuromedicine and prosthetics.

In just a few seconds, a conversation about the CGI and facial-recognition software used in the Planet of the Apes and Avatar movies turned into a passionate discussion about how much my friend Jon and I wanted to be involved in work with prosthetics in the future! I’ve known Jon for about four years because we’ve been involved in the same club, but this is the first time I’d ever gotten the chance to talk to him about his career interests. I love getting to know people – and spreading the word about occupational therapy – so I definitely wanted to learn more about his experience with prosthetic technology and talk about my plans to work with polytrauma patients in the future.

Jon is a double major in neuroscience and kinesiology and he started telling us about DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), a military contracting company, and how it works to design and build the world’s most advanced, human-like and functional prosthetics (among many other projects). As he began explaining more about DARPA and a new type of prosthetic they might be trying to develop, I had an eerie feeling of déjà vu.

Why the déjà vu, you ask? This morning I was volunteering and I had JUST read an article in Rehab Management’s monthly magazine about the new technologies being developed and used in hand therapy. This article was particularly interesting because I had not known about the development of this amazing sensory discrimination prosthetic technology before. I thought the article was so cool that I made a copy and brought it home to read through and potentially write a blog post about. So it was crazy when I ended up at a burger joint this afternoon with somebody who knew about and who was just as excited about this sensory prosthetic technology as I was!

In order to give you a little background on what we were geeking out about, there is a kind of prosthetic being developed that allows the user to “sense” the texture and resistance of the objects being touched and Jon and I were both discussing how important this will be for making prosthetics even more functional in the future. Basically, researchers designed a prosthetic hand that interfaced with the user’s sensory nerves in his upper arm to allow him to “sense” whether objects he held while blindfolded were “soft or hard, round or square.” This sensory capability is very important, because the feedback we receive from our hands and other body parts as they contact objects in the environment lets us know how much pressure we should exert when picking them up, how much they weigh and whether or not they’re too hot or cold to touch. So I imagine that having this ability would certainly open new doors for people with prostheses and contribute to improved, more natural function. I’ve included the link to a Popular Mechanics article that goes into some more detail on the issue, and it also includes a link to the actual study (because it’s important to be evidence-based!)

I’ll also include the link to the Rehab Management article that introduced me to this topic:

It is a really engaging article, and it discusses many of the new developments in hand therapy, prosthetic technology and therapeutic treatments that I hope to learn more about in the future. Definitely worth the read!


So that was my day – I go out to lunch to relax with friends and end up getting all excited when I realize that everyone I know is secretly a nerd like me!

Have you heard about this “sensory” prosthetic technology being developed? Do you think it will be a useful development for people who use prosthetic limbs?

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