Man controls robotic hand with thoughts
By Nick Squires in Perugia
Published: 3:34PM GMT 03 Dec 2009
An Italian man who lost half his arm in a car crash has become the first person in the world to be given a robotic hand that can be controlled by thoughts, scientists have claimed.
The success of the experiment brings a step closer the possibility of creating a “bionic man” as envisaged by science fiction writers and the popular 1970s television series, The Six Million Dollar Man.
Pierpaolo Petruzziello was able to wiggle the fingers of the robotic hand, make a fist and hold objects, controlling the artificial limb via electrodes attached to the stump of his left arm.
The 26-year-old was even able to feel needles being jabbed into the hand, which he said felt almost like flesh and blood even though it was not attached directly to his body.
“It felt almost the same as a real hand,” he told a press conference in Rome, where the breakthrough was announced. “It’s a matter of mind, of concentration. When you think of it as your hand and forearm, it all becomes easier.”
The Italian scientists behind the project said it was the first time a patient had been able to make such complex movements using his mind to control a biomechanical hand connected to his nervous system.
Mr Petruzziello, who now lives in Brazil, was given the use of the bionic hand for a month last year, but advantages in technology will be needed before such prosthetic limbs can be attached to patients permanently.
His progress in mastering the use of the limb was monitored by neurologists at Rome’s Campus Bio-Medico, a university and hospital that specialises in health sciences.
After Mr Petruzziello recovered from the microsurgery he underwent to have the electrodes implanted in his arm, it only took him a few days to master the use of the robotic hand, said team leader Paolo Maria Rossini.
By the time the experiment was over, the hand obeyed the commands it received from his brain in 95 per cent of cases.
It was the longest time electrodes had remained connected to a human nervous system in such an experiment, said Silvestro Micera, one of the engineers on the team.
Independent experts said the experiment was an important step forward in melding the human nervous system with a prosthetic limb.
“It’s an important advancement on the work that was done in the mid-2000s,” said Dustin Tyler, a biomedical engineer at the VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The important piece that remains is how long beyond a month we can keep the electrodes in.”
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