Scientists have successfully wired a state-of-the-art artificial hand to existing nerve endings in the stump of a severed arm. Its creators say the device, called “SmartHand,” resembles a real hand in function, sensitivity and appearance. In order to develop such an intelligent artificial prosthetic hand with all the basic features displayed by a real one, the SmartHand team integrated recent advances in nanobioscience, cognitive neuroscience and information technologies.

The artificial SmartHand, built by a team of top European Union and Israeli scientists, features four electric motors and 40 sensors that are activated when the SmartHand touches an object, not only replicating the movement of a human hand, but also providing the wearer with a sensation of feeling and touch.

Robin af Ekenstam of Sweden, the project's first human subject, has not only been able to complete extremely complicated tasks like eating and writing, he reports he is also able to "feel" his fingers once again.

"I am using muscles which I haven't used for years. I grab something hard, and then I can feel it in the fingertips, which is strange, as I don't have them anymore. It's amazing," Ekenstam told a television interviewer. Thankfully the SmartHand will belong to Ekenstam as long as he wishes. While the prototype looks very "bionic" now, in the future SmartHand scientists plan to equip it with artificial skin that will give the brain even more tactile feedback. The researchers will also study amputees equipped with the SmartHand to understand how to improve the device over time.

Although the SmartHand project focused on hands, the researchers say they could also have built bionic legs to be wired to the brain. The team first chose to build a hand, however, because of its unique challenges. "The fingers in the hand are the most complex appendages we have," Prof. Shacham-Diamand observes. "The brain needs to synchronize the movement of each digit in a very complicated way."

The SmartHand project is a collaboration between Tel Aviv University (Israel), ARTS Lab, Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna (Italy), Aalborg University (Denmark), Tyndall Institute (Ireland), Össur (Iceland) and SciTech Link HB (Sweden).