Touch for Prosthetics
The need/desire for functional replacement of a missing upper limb is an ancient one: historically humans have replaced a missing limb with a prosthesis for cosmetic, vocational, or personal autonomy reasons. The hand is a powerful tool and its loss causes severe physical and often mental debilitation. Together with the obvious inability to grasp and manipulate objects, an amputee loses the capability to sense and explore the surrounding world as well as the ability to use gestures to support speech and express emotions; moreover she/he may develop psychological problems and encumbrance due to physical differences compared with non-disabled people. Significant advances have been achieved in the recent past, such as the development of dexterous artificial hands capable of complex motor tasks and of decoding control methods that restore more natural motor control . Implanted neural interfaces surgically inserted into the peripheral nerves of the residuum have shown remarkable potential as tools for restoring the sensory information flow between the hand prosthesis and the nervous system. Initial very promising demonstrations have shown that tactile information can be restored , opening new and exciting possibilities. Intraneural electrodes, in particular, have been used to restore several features of the sense of touch including sophisticated ones such as texture discrimination , object compliance and shape recognition . Notwithstanding these very promising results, and recent/ongoing research networks (e.g., EU projects: INTER, GRIP, CYBERHAND, NEUROBOTICS, SMARTHAND, NANOBIOTACT, TIME, NEBIAS, or the HAPTIX DARPA initiative) have contributed to the progress of neuro-controlled hand prostheses, important efforts are still necessary to make these solutions more effective (i.e., able to provide more natural and rich sensations). In particular, this proposal is going to address two important open issues, i.e., the development of more biocompatible neural interfaces and the identification of more natural encoding (stimulation) strategies.