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A neural controlled prosthetic hand

At the end of the 1980s, Professor Paolo Dario from Pisa’s scuola superiore sant’Anna launched the ambitious project of creating a neural controlled prosthetic hand, based on electrodes implanted in the arm’s peripheral nerves. The project was started thanks to a series of international collaborations (including with Professor Gregory T. A. Kovacs of the stanford University and Professor Patrick Aebischer, then of Brown University and currently President of the ecole Polytechnique Federale de lausanne, EPFL). Research integrated in the European INTER Project assumed a particular importance. Since then, Pisa’s scuola superiore sant’Anna has coordinated or has been involved in various European and international projects (gRiP, CYBeRhAnd, neUROBOTiCs, dACTin, neBiAs) also thanks to scientific backing from Professor Silvestro Micera who, over the years, flanked Prof. Dario, to eventually become his successor. Today Prof. Micera, the coordinator of the lifehand 2 Project, is head of the Neuroengineering Department and activities relating to neural control of the prosthetic hand at The BioRobotics institute of scuola superiore sant’Anna of Pisa. Since 2011 he has furthermore been working at the EPFL’s new Neuroprosthesis Centre in Lausanne.

In this context, the Università Campus-Bio Medico University of Rome Bio-Medico di Roma has also been cooperating. In 2008 the University and its Hospital provided the platform for the final stages of the lifehand project, which led, in cooperation with the scuola superiore sant’Anna of Pisa and other European partners, to the successful experimenting of the first direct control of a biomechatronic prosthetic hand via neural interfaces implanted in the peripheral nerves of an amputated patient.

Since then, the group’s research has continued via diverse Italian and European projects, with a central core of researchers, composed of the teams of Prof. Paolo Maria Rossini (Neurologist, current Chairman of Neurology at the University Policlinico Universitario ‘Agostino gemelli’, Rome), of the alreadymentioned Prof. Silvestro Micera and of Prof. Eugenio Guglielmelli, Head of the Laboratory of Biomedical Robotics and Biomicrosystems of the Campus-Bio Medico University of Rome.

Studies, which have been carried out furthering the results achieved in 2008, led in 2013 to this latest experimental phase called lifehand 2. The research project enabling experimentation was named neMesis (neurocontrolled Mechatronic hand prosthesis) and was financed by the Italian Ministry of Health within the framework of grants awarded to ‘young researchers’. The project’s head researcher is Prof. Micera. On the other hand, the Coordinating Centre is the iRCss san Raffaele ‘Pisana’, under the clinical guidance of Prof. Rossini.

This is the second stage on a long-term journey, aiming to create a completely implantable prosthesis system, richly sensorized and controlled through the patient’s nervous system, with a dexterity comparable to a natural limb in carrying out of daily activities.

During the course of lifehand 2’s experimenting the Openhand biomechatronic prosthesis was employed, which has been developed in the laboratories of the scuola superiore sant’Anna of Pisa as part of the research project of the same name funded by MIUR (PRIN 2009-2012). The personalized socket used to attach the prosthesis was created by Ortopedia italia (Frosinone) within the framework of the DTB2\NEUROHAND project.

The synergy between researchers is set to continue also with the handBot project (MIUR\PRIN 2013-2015 Programme), which has just been launched and is being coordinated by the Campus Bio-Medico Unviersity of Rome.