At a liberal arts college with a long history of fostering leaders in medicine, it is important that we learn to adapt to the drastically different future of the field. This future is going to rely heavily on the integration of biotechnology.

One of the holy grails of modern biotechnological research is making artificial prosthetics indistinguishable from real limbs. After preliminary tests of a study that was published Wednesday in “Science Translational Medicine,” researchers at two European universities are coming closer than ever to achieving this incredible dream. 

Almost a decade ago, Dennis Aabo Sørensen had to have his left arm amputated after a New Year’s Eve firework accident. Sørensen, who lives in Denmark, decided to participate in a trial being conducted by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Italy.

The researchers studied the patterns of nerve impulses that carry sensory information from the hand through the arm. 

They then implanted electrodes in Sørensen’s left arm, connecting them to two primary nerves in the arm, the ulnar and the median. The electrodes stimulate these nerves in real time using very similar electrical signals conducted by a healthy hand. 

Sørensen’s arm was fitted with a prosthetic hand equipped with touch sensors that relay information back to the electrodes and through the rest of the arm. For the first time ever, his prosthetic can actually “feel.”

With the prosthetic hand, Sørensen is once again able to distinguish characteristics of objects solely using his sense of touch. 

He was blindfolded and wore headphones during the trial, blocking out the senses one usually needs to distinguish objects while wearing a prosthetic hand.

Sørensen noted that the sensory feedback in his left arm was very similar to the natural feeling of manipulating an object with his right hand. 

With his new prosthetic, he was able to distinguish objects of different hardness and shape without looking.

This breakthrough in research has given a glimpse into the benefits touch sensitive feedback systems in prosthetics.

Imagine, for example, how the life of a student can change once they are able to finally hold a pencil again. 

Although there is still a long way to go until similar prosthetics will be available to the general public, this study ushers in an entirely new era of technological innovation for amputee patients.
So to all the aspiring physicians and biomedical researchers who are attempting to fit more biology courses into your schedules, you may want to consider taking more classes in Searles Hall instead—the future of medicine certainly looks like it may reside in the hands of biomedical engineers.