Helping amputees regain the sense of touch has long been a challenge, even as technology has allowed for increasingly advanced developments in the field of prosthetics. But now that’s changing thanks to the medical device company Mobius Bionics, which has created a prototype arm with the ability to link to an amputee’s nerves.
And naturally, we can thank Star Wars for the innovation. Sort of.
In an experimental study, Mobius and the University of Utah teamed up to develop the LUKE Arm prototype—short for Life Under Kinetic Evolution, inspired by Luke Skywalker, who famously lost his right hand in a battle with Darth Vader. The prosthesis returns function and feeling to its users by signaling the nervous system via peripheral nerve stimulation, a process that utilizes an aspirin-sized implant to deliver sensory information and feedback to LUKE.
Here’s how it works: The nerves near the user’s amputated area are connected to electrodes, which feed into his or her arm. As the user thinks about moving LUKE, his or her brain sends electrical signals via the electrodes to LUKE, telling it to move. It’s similar to the way non-amputees move their arms and fingers, except amputees using LUKE have to consciously think about moving the prosthetic. Non-amputated parts of the body don’t require nearly as much thought to move.
Naturally, there’s a learning curve, but once a user acclimates to LUKE, he or she regains dexterity without needing to hyper-focus on the act of motion. In order to create the sense of touch lost to amputations, researchers embedded sensors in LUKE that simulate the feeling and pressure of a touch.
In the study, published in Science Robotics, the authors say that although the sense of touch is artificial, everything about how the sensation is created is biological.MORE IN PROSTHESESTo Make Better Prostheses, We Need Better Biology‘Hand Solo’ Builds His Own Prosthesis From LegoNew Wrist Gives Unprecedented Motion to Amputees
“Artificial touch can be sculpted by patterning the sensory feedback, and biologically inspired patterns elicit more interpretable and useful percepts,” the study authors write.
They also say using biomimetic feedback allows the user of the prosthesis to “identify objects significantly faster than with the use of traditional algorithms.” And because LUKE is pre-programmed with various grip patterns that allow for a wide range of motion, one user has already handled grapes, peeled a banana, and squeezed his wife’s hand, per Science Alert. The possibilities are significant.
LUKE is now available for purchase in the U.S., but by law, you can only buy it from—or on the order of—a licensed healthcare professional.