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Artificial Hand with a Sense of Touch

Woman smiles as she hands a block to a man with an artificial hand hooked up to many wires

Army Veteran Keith Vonderhuevel reaches out to grasp an object with his prototype artificial hand that actually provides some sense of touch. VA Research Engineer Emily Graczyk assists. Photo courtesy of the VA Center of Excellence in Functional Electrical Stimulation, Cleveland

by Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2014

In that epic Star Wars movie, “The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke Skywalker gets his hand lopped off by his own father, Darth Vader, while the two are dueling with those cool light sabers.

But no worries.

In no time at all, Luke is outfitted with a brand new hand that looks and works just like the one he lost. Like it never even happened.

Well, researchers at the Cleveland VA Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University haven’t been able to achieve that kind of medical miracle yet, but recently they got a bit closer when they developed an artificial hand that provides something similar to a sense of touch.

“If the amputee is actually able to feel something, you’re getting close to creating a naturally functioning prosthetic hand…something that actually feels like a part of you,” said Dustin Tyler, director of VA’s artificial hand project at the Cleveland VA. “What we’ve come up with here is a step in that direction.”

Tyler and his team have been working on this project since 1992. Currently it remains in the early lab testing phase. But researchers hope to get the device into broader use sometime within the next 10 years.

“The computer-based interface we came up with can relay a sense of touch from 20 different spots on the hand,” Tyler explained. “Sensors in the hand are connected to electrodes that deliver signals to three nerves in the arm. So when you touch something, your brain will actually perceive that you’re touching something.”

…the harder I squeeze, the stronger the sensation gets. You can feel like there’s something there.

Currently, only a few patients have been outfitted with the experimental hand. Keith Vonderhuevel, an Army Veteran, is one of them. He lost his hand in an industrial accident in 2005, and now spends many hours in the Cleveland research lab, helping VA researchers fine-tune his prosthetic hand.

“It does give you some sensation,” he said. “When they have me grab on to a hard block, I get a strong sensation right away. If I grab on to a soft block, I get a light sensation, but then the harder I squeeze, the stronger the sensation gets. You can feel like there’s something there.”

In addition to squeezing hard and soft blocks, the Veteran also gets to pluck the stems off cherries while researchers watch and record his efforts.

“They have me hold a cherry with my prosthetic hand and pluck the stem off with my good hand,” he explained. “The idea is not to crush the cherry. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.”

Vonderhuevel said some of his cherries still wind up as causalities, but lately most seem to be surviving the experience. “Now I can do 13 or 14 in a row,” he said.

Right now the device only works in the lab, when it’s hooked up to a lot of equipment. But Vonderhuevel believes the prosthetic device — once it’s developed to the point where he can wear it all the time — will make a distinct difference in his everyday life.

“It will help with a lot of things,” he said. “I’ll be able to make a sandwich without squeezing the bread too hard. I’ll be able to play with my grandchildren without squeezing them too hard. I’ll be able to do things I can’t do now.”

Vonderhuevel said he’s not sure if the new technology will progress fast enough for him to ever benefit from it. He’s resigned himself to the possibility that the Luke Skywalker hand of the future may be just that — something a future generation of Veterans will enjoy.

“But that’s OK,” said the 47-year-old. “I feel like I’m helping somebody else — all those Veterans coming back from overseas with missing limbs. At least I will have helped them out.”

To learn more about VA research in the area of prosthetics and related technology, visit www.research.va.gov/research_topics/Prosthetics.cfm.