Innovation expands prosthetic capabilities.

A team of scientists from Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and the University of Utah, School of Medicine are jointly developing a first-of-its-kind bioengineered robotic hand that will grow and adapt to its environment. It will offer tactile sensitivity previously lacking in robotic prosthetics.

Deploying a sophisticated array of sensors and actuators, the hand’s design innovation springs from a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, physicians and scientists, lending expertise from multiple disciplines including robotics, bioengineering, behavioral science, orthopedics, nerve regeneration, electrophysiology and microfluidic technologies. “Controlled by a human, it can sense pressure changes, interpret the information it is receiving and interact with various objects,” said FAU. “It adjusts its grip based on an object's weight or fragility. But the real challenge is figuring out how to send that information back to the brain using living residual neural pathways to replace those that have been damaged or destroyed by trauma.”

According to FAU, its "living" robot hand will have its own peripheral nervous system that links the robotic sensors and actuators. FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science will lead the multidisciplinary team; research will be supported by a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, of the National Institutes of Health.

When the peripheral nerve is cut or damaged, explained the university, it uses the electrical activity that tactile receptors generate to restore itself. “We want to examine how the fingertip sensors can help damaged or severed nerves regenerate," said Erik Engeberg, Director of FAU's BioRobotics Laboratory. "To accomplish this, we are going to directly connect these living nerves in vitro and then electrically stimulate them on a daily basis with sensors from the robotic hand to see how the nerves grow and regenerate while the hand is operated by limb-absent people."