In a groundbreaking study that could change the lives of millions of people living with amputations, scientists at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) developed a way to use virtual reality and “artificial tactile sensations” to trick the brain into feeling a prosthetic like a biological part of the body.
Some amputees’ perception of a phantom limb can feel shorter than the prosthesis they wear, which results in them not wanting to wear the device. During the experiment, Rognini and his team stimulated the nerves in a patient’s arm stump, which provided artificial stimulation to the tip of the index finger in the phantom limb. At the same time, the patient wore a VR headset which showed the corresponding finger of the prosthetic hand glowing in sync with the nerve stimulation. What they found was that the combination of seeing through VR and feeling the stimulation caused the phantom limb and the prosthetic to align. “The brain regularly uses its senses to evaluate what belongs to the body and what is external to the body,” said Giulio Rognini of EPFL. “We showed exactly how vision and touch can be combined to trick the amputee’s brain into feeling what it sees, inducing embodiment of the prosthetic hand with an additional effect that the phantom limb grows into the prosthetic one.”
“The extension of the phantom limb lasted not only during the simulation but also 10 minutes after the simulation was ended,” Rognini added in a video with Mashable (below). The researchers argue that in the near future, this approach could help amputees feel more comfortable and connected to their prostheses. “The setup is portable and could one day be turned into a therapy to help patients embody their prosthetic limb permanently,” said Rognini. There are an estimated 2 million people living with amputations in the United States alone, so with some more work, this could help a lot of people.
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