Scientists have developed artificial nerves that could one day enable amputees to feel heat, cold and touch with their prosthetic limbs.
The technique uses thin plastic filaments made from a material called Pedot that can conduct electrical signals. They are wired into the patient’s real nerves and stretch to the ends of the limb.
The scientists behind the invention believe it could eventually enable amputees to play the piano or feel the brush of a real hand against the surface of their man-made one.
Paul Cederna, professor of plastic surgery at the University of Michigan, said: “Someone who has lost both their hands would be able to hold their child’s hand again and feel the warmth.
“So many things we do each day rely on that light touch and pressure sensation feedback, from holding a paper cup of hot coffee to holding a phone against your ear.”
Cederna’s research was unveiled last week at the annual American plastic surgeons’ conference in Seattle. It is being funded by the American military and is one of a number of efforts to improve the treatment of people with missing limbs, sparked partly by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since the beginning of last year, 55 British servicemen have had at least one limb amputated.
The most advanced computerised limbs fitted at the Headley Court defence medical centre in Surrey are moved wirelessly by controllers in the patient’s pocket.
The use of Pedot opens up the possibility of effective two-way communication between artificial limbs and the brain because, according to Cederna, it reacts twice as quickly as normal nerve cells. It is also 10 times more efficient at transmitting the nervous system’s electrical signals than the metal materials that are currently used.
In addition, the use of Pedot has been shown to encourage new nerve growth.
“It would feel the same as the real thing,” said Cederna. “There would be no re-learning required from the brain because the nerves already carry all those signals.”