Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have used prosthetic limbs and virtual reality technology to ‘trick’ amputees into feeling life-like sensations and feelings.

The concept of phantom limbs has long been around, with some amputees claiming to feel sensations or pain where missing limbs should be. Almost as if the mind hasn’t registered that the limb is no longer there. The phenomenon has long prompted research into many aspects of dealing with missing limbs such as managing ‘ghost’ pain and nerve sensitivity.

Now scientists claim that by combining the sense of sight and touch via a virtual reality headset, amputees can experience a prosthetic limb as if it were a real part of their body. For example, a prosthetic leg would produce much the same sensations and feelings as if it were the wearer’s own leg.

Prosthetic hand

The findings could bring research for  amputees into a new era and further boost spending and studies into how the mind can link with artificial body parts, despite no ‘hardwiring’ of these parts into the body’s nervous system.

In their experiments, published today in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, the scientists described two cases of patients with missing hands. Traditional prosthetic limbs do not provide sensory feedback to the wearer and so (s)he must check on it visually to ensure everything is fine.

The experiments in this case used virtual reality to trick the brain into seeing a prosthetic limb as having grown into the phantom hand. When the top of the remaining limb (i.e. the ‘stump’) was stimulated, the wearer would see the index finger in the virtual reality headset glowing. Using this technique, the patients reported that the prosthetic hand felt as if it were part of their own body and could ‘feel’ the sensation.

In the video below, EPFL explain the procedure and concept behind the experiments;

The findings are significant because they could point towards a way of integrating technology and our mind without the need for physically connecting the two together. The requirement for virtual technology in the experiment would need to be refined before the procedure could be of any practical use.

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