Research into 'Star Wars' hands
Prosthetic limbs similar to the bionic hand used by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars could soon be a possibility following the launch of a new research project.
The £1.4 million programme will focus on how to produce a hand that can sense pressure and temperature and send this information back to the brain.
If successful, it would enable much higher levels of function for people who have lost their limbs, meaning it is not just a possibility in a galaxy far, far away.
Led by Newcastle University and involving experts from the universities of Leeds, Essex, Keele, Southampton and Imperial College London, the study hopes to create electrodes in the bionic limb that would wrap around the nerve endings in the arm.
This would mean for the first time the hand could communicate directly with the brain and would be a major advance in the field of prosthetics.
Dr Kianoush Nazarpour, a lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Newcastle University and leader of the study, said: "The UK leads the way in the design of prosthetic limbs but until now one of the limiting factors has been the technology to allow the hand to communicate with the brain.
"If we can design a system that allows this two-way communication it would help people to naturally reach out and pick up a glass, for example, whilst maintaining eye contact in a conversation, or pick up an apple without bruising it.
"This will advance the field of prosthetics, provide enhanced function to prosthesis users, and also reduce the time involved to learn how to use the device because the movements will come naturally.
"The technology will also have applications for patients with neurological conditions where reduced sensation is a factor."
The team, who have been given £1.4 million for the project from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will build fingertip sensors to give the prosthesis a realistic sense of touch and a 'virtual hand' will provide information on the sense of the hand's position and movement.
Dr Rory O'Connor, senior lecturer in rehabilitation medicine at the University of Leeds, said: " We are seeing many more active young people who are surviving severe injuries that result in them losing one or more limbs and requiring a prosthesis.
"The current designs are like a plug and socket. The socket fits over the end of the limb and picks up signals from the muscles. The prosthesis fits onto this and by learning to flex certain muscles the patient can work the hand.
"The drawback is that for many patients - particularly survivors of trauma - the muscle ends are too damaged to be able to use the limb.
"What patients tell us is they want something that is more intuitive and more closely replicates the natural movement and feel of a real hand and that is what we hope to achieve through this project."