What if you could wire up your nervous system to a robotic hand so well that it actually felt like your own? Would you be a real-life cyborg or Six Million Dollar Man? Yup. It's not only the future of prosthetic limbs. It's the present. It was done last year.
Doctors in Rome's Campus Bio-Medico university hospital did the experiment in 2008 with a post-accident amputee called Pierpaolo Petruzziello but didn't reveal the amazing results until Wednesday. The experiment lasted a month, and during the tests Pierpaolo wasn't actually wearing the robot hand--it remained desk-bound, but was connected to his body by electrodes implanted in his arm.
The team is calling it the first time a patient has been able to make genuinely complex movements with a robotic limb using just mind control via direct nervous-system links. It's distinguished from other efforts in this direction--like Dean Kamen's astonishing Luke Arm project--by actually attempting to use the same nerve routes into the patient's brain previously used by his own flesh and bone.
To make the robot fingers move, Pierpaolo had to re-learn the sensations of waggling fingers he is now missing. Tough as that may have been, it was simpler than the tricky mental gymnastics involved in training other nerves to actuate the hand. He noted it was just "a matter of mind" over matter, and reported that after a month it felt almost the same as a real hand. To the point he could make a "vulgar" gesture apparently.
If this sounds familiar, it's because the team is also working on Smarthand, an EU-led and funded experiment to create next-gen implantable prosthetic limbs. The Rome experiment is an amazingly positive sign that Smarthand will produce a useable synthetic hand since the implants responded to 95% of the patients' commands, and it represents the longest time the necessary electrodes have remained implanted in a patient without long-term damage. Next steps: Doing longer tests and developing more sophisticated robotic hands. After that? Genuine cyborg tech on the market, helping people's lives.