Europe′s first bionic hand still going strong a year on | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 06.07.2011
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Europe's first bionic hand still going strong a year on

Austrian scientists pioneer a bionic hand powered by neural signals. The first man to get one says he can do things that would have been impossible a year ago, such as ride a bike and eat with a fork and knife.

Patrick Mayrhofer

Patrick Mayrhofer had his hand replaced late last year

For decades, humans have speculated about upgrading, or replacing their body parts to include bionic implants. Cochlear implants and pacemakers have become commonplace. But the Austrian company Bionic Reconstructions is pioneering a technique to perform elective amputations to replace severely damaged hands with cyborg-like appendages controlled directly by the brain.

Patrick Mayrhofer has one of the appendages. Doctors were able to save his left arm after he was severely electrocuted three years ago during a work accident, but not even nine operations made it possible for Dr. Oskar Aszmann and his team of surgeons to save Mayrhofer's left hand.

Otto Bock Healthcare, however, was able to create a bionic replacement for Mayrhofer that Aszmann attached to the 23-year-old a year ago.

The hand 'Michelangelo'

shaking hands

Mayrhofer is able to do many things, include shake hands

The company's hand, called Michelangelo, has a metallic frame, with chrome-colored joints and skinny fingers of white plastic.

"The hand is connected to the body though a socket and electrodes sit in the sockets and contact directly the skin," said Janos Kalmar, one of Otto Bock Healthcare's main researchers.

It's the electrodes that can receive neuroelectrical signals from the brain's nervous system through the skin that set the bionic hand apart from standard prosthetics. Even if a real hand no longer exists, the brain can still fire neurons to move it, and the brain dutifully sends out that same jolt to the bionic hand's electrodes.

"Using the electrodes, we can pick up these muscle activations, small voltages on the skin, and with the two of them, we can open and close the hand," Kalmar added.

Amputating his damaged hand

retinal replacement

Other bionic body parts are being tested, including the Argus, a retinal replacement

After seeing how the mechanical hand could work, Mayrhofer agreed to become one of the first people to test the bionic hand, which won't be released as a commercial product until later this year.

But first he had to convince his family that amputating his existing hand was not a crazy idea.

"They said, 'Oh my God, what are you doing!'" he remembered. "But with the company, I made videos and showed them to my family, and they said, 'Wow that is amazing! You go to Vienna and three hours later, you can grab your glass - something you haven't been able to do with your hand for years.'"

The amputation was the simple part, said Aszmann. More important, he added, was creating a new neurological network that would generate a signal strong enough to power the prosthetic what he calls "bionic reconstruction."

"You have to imagine that every hand surgical reconstruction has an immense phase of rehabilitation," Aszmann explained.

Bionic biking, climbing and eating

bionic hand Michelangelo

Michelangelo has a metallic frame but plastic and rubber fingertips

After months of practice, Mayrhofer thinks of moving his hand in certain ways and his bionic hand obeys. He uses the new hand to ride a bicycle, go rock climbing and eat with a fork and knife.

He is the first person to go through such a procedure in Europe, according to Aszmann, but not the last. In April, Aszmann attached a bionic hand for a patient who had not been able to move his human hand for the last 10 years.

The Austrian government has given 3 million euros ($4.3 million) to the hospital to create a new Center of Bionic Reconstruction, which is set to open in September.

Aszmann said he sees about one person a week who could become candidates for the bionic device.

"We can re-route nerves, get new muscle attached, we can alter skeletal environment, so that the patient in the end will have excellent conditions for a prosthetic device," he said

Author: Sruthi Pinnameneni, Vienna / cjf

Editor: Sean Sinico

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