Unlike lower limbs where diabetes is usually a factor, upper limb amputations due to vascular system complications account for only a small portion of cases, according to a fact sheet from the Center for Orthotic and Prosthetic Care. Most upper limb amputations are due to congenital factors, cancer, or trauma (meaning accidents). Recent developments in prostheses for upper limb amputees include wristbands developed by graduate students at the Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin that can translate movements and gestures into digital control signals for prostheses. The OpenBionics open source robotic hand was created by researchers and technology enthusiasts at Yale, Cornell, and the National Technical University of Athens.

Biomedical engineers at Newcastle University have developed a prosthetic hand with an integrated camera that can see. The researchers recently published findings from their work in the Journal of Neural Engineering. The bionic camera captures images of objects ahead of the hand. Machine learning artificial intelligence programs involving neural networks assess the shape and size of the object and trigger a series of appropriate hand movements. The process bypasses the usual chain of activity in which an amputee sees and recognizes an object, stimulates muscles in the arm, and triggers movement in the prosthetic limb. The goal is to improve prosthetic responsiveness to the point that, as with real hands, a person can reach out and pick up a cup or an apple based on a quick glance. According to study co-author Dr. Kianoush Nazapour, “Responsiveness has been one of the main barriers to artificial limbs. For many amputees, the reference point is their healthy arm or leg so prosthetics seem slow and cumbersome in comparison.”

The image responsive hand is the first step toward a fully sensitive bionic hand that can also detect and respond to pressure and temperature. The researchers’ objective is an artificial hand similar to Luke Skywalkers’. Luke’s bionic limb’s electrodes were wrapped around nerve endings in his arm. The Newcastle engineers’ ultimate goal is to achieve two-way communication between the human brain and the prosthesis.