New device allows amputees to feel temperature sensation

A new non-invasive device called MiniTouch provides thermal feedback about the object being touched.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Representational image
Representational image

Viorel Kurnosov/iStock 

Amputees can regain temperature sensation in their phantom hand thanks to new bionic technology. Researchers from Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPF) are leading this innovation. 

They created a non-invasive device called MiniTouch for the study, which provides thermal feedback about the object being touched.

“Temperature feedback is essential for relaying information that goes beyond touch, it leads to feelings of affection. We are social beings and warmth is an important part of that,” said Silvestro Micera, Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Translational Neuroengineering, who co-led this study, in an official release.  

“For the first time, after many years of research in my laboratory showing that touch and position information can be successfully delivered, we envisage the possibility of restoring all of the rich sensations that one’s natural hand can provide,” Micera added.

This device could be integrated into wearable devices such as prosthetics in the future. Amputees will be able to feel more realistic touch by incorporating new sensors into prosthetic limbs.

Over the course of two years, the team recruited over 27 volunteers for the trials. In 17 patients, the technology was successfully demonstrated. Many participants reported feeling reconnected to their missing hand.

“Temperature feedback is a nice sensation because you feel the limb, the phantom limb, entirely. It does not feel phantom anymore because your limb is back,” said Francesca Rossi, an amputee from Bologna, Italy, who participated in this study.

According to the official press release, the new device includes a thin, wearable sensor that can be placed over an amputee's prosthetic finger. The results demonstrated that the sensor could detect thermal information about the type of object being touched. A metallic object, for example, will emit more heat or cold than a plastic object. 

Thermal electrodes (also known as thermodes) were placed on the skin of the amputee's residual arm to provide temperature feedback. The thermodes, in turn, provided information about the object being touched by the finger sensor. 

“Of particular importance is that phantom thermal sensations are perceived by the patient as similar to the thermal sensations experienced by their intact hand," said Solaiman Shokur, EPFL senior scientist neuroengineer who co-led the study.

The team's next goal is to fine-tune temperature sensations and integrate them into a wearable device. 

The new study has been published in the journal Science.

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