The bionic hand that feels objects. An Interview with Silvestro Micera of Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa
The bionic woman exists and is in Italy. After undergoing a delicate operation at Policlinico Gemelli Hospital in Rome in June 2016, an Italian woman from Veneto, who had lost her left hand in an accident, felt like she could perceive contact with objects again thanks to a “bionic hand” developed by Silvestro Micera’s research team at the BioRobotics Institute of Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. Let’s look at some of the stages of this important “made in Italy” success with him.
Professor Micera, an important step forward in the development of the “bionic hand” was made with a European project, NEBIAS, named among the 100 most important success stories of 2014 by Discover Magazine. Can you tell us about this project coordinated by Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies?
The main objective of the NEBIAS project was to develop and clinically evaluate the first upper limb prosthesis intuitively controlled using neural signals and felt by the amputee as natural thanks to the presence of a tactile signal. The main results achieved by the project in the field of neuroprosthetics were: the effective use of the bidirectional hand prosthesis for long-term application; the functional, clinical and psychological benefits for the patient using this system; and the miniaturization and portability of the whole system for an environmentally friendly use.
What technologies made it possible to achieve these objectives?
The NEBIAS project’s results were possible thanks to intraneural interfaces and personalized algorithms able to provide a stable and very selective connection with the nervous system. The system combined microtechnology and material science and, on the one hand, it allowed the recording of the motor-related signals governing the actions of the amputated hand/arm for the control of a mechanical prosthesis and, on the other hand, it provided tactile sensory feedback through neuromorphic stimulation of the afferent pathway within the residual limb.
Then, in 2016, the first “bionic hand” was fitted onto an Italian woman. A great success that was also reported in the international press…
Almerina M., one of the people involved in the clinical trial who wore and tested the bidirectional hand prosthesis, is a 48 year old woman with a traumatic trans-radial amputation of the distal third of the left forearm following a work accident occurred 23 years before the beginning of the clinical trial. The prosthesis was fitted in June 2016 at Policlinico Gemelli Hospital in Rome. This was the first long-term application of the bidirectional prosthesis using intraneural interfaces with a fully portable system. The subject performed functional tasks – such as object recognition, tests with sensorized tools, clinical trials, etc. – inside and outside the laboratory where the intraneural sensory feedback allowed her to obtain better performances in the use of the prosthesis.
What are the prospects offered by the implantation of this “hi-tech” prosthesis, in addition to the possibility of restoring a sense of touch to thousands of amputees?
This study gave neuroscientists and clinical neurophysiologists the great opportunity to improve our basic understanding of how the nervous system – both central and peripheral – sends motor commands and sensory feedback to control the upper limb and enable the hand to perform reach-to-grasp tasks. The results of the project helped to increase the neuroscientific, clinical and technological knowledge for the development of other bidirectional interfaces and neural prostheses, as well as roadmaps for the future development of hybrid bionic systems.