News Link • Science, Medicine and Technology • 2017-02-08

Robotic prosthetic taps spinal nerve signals

Could a new robotic prosthetic arm that detects signals from spinal nerve cells nudge researchers closer to creating an artificial limb that resembles the real thing?

The problem with muscle-controlled robotic arms is that they rely on twitches from amputated limbs, the fibers of which are often damaged.

"When an arm is amputated the nerve fibres and muscles are also severed, which means that it is very difficult to get meaningful signals from them to operate a prosthetic," explains Dario Farina, a professor of bioengineering at Imperial College London.

This limits the number of tasks the artificial limb can perform and explains why up to 50 percent of users end up dumping them in frustration, he claims. But what if the prosthetic made use of the nervous system instead, so that the signals sent from the motor neurons, which control muscle movement, could be deciphered more clearly? Could this lead to the development of more intuitive robotic arms? This is what Farina and his team wanted to find out.