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Exploradio Origins sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

Exploradio Origins: Making Robotic Limbs More Human

a photo of a prosthetic hand with touch receptors
Researchers are working to restore not only movement with prosthetics, but the sense of touch as well.

A research group at Case Western Reserve University, led by professor of biomedical engineering Dustin Tyler, works with neural implants in people who’ve lost limbs to restore not only motion with prosthetics, but also the sense of touch.   

"We spent a lot of time understanding how our language, the electrical language, is translated into the human perception, predominantly in terms of sense of touch," Tyler said.   "The first time we went in with our subject, we had no idea what was going to happen. So we first turned on the first stimulus pulses and he said, 'Wow, that's my thumb. That's the first time I felt my thumb since the accident.'"  

Tyler’s implants have around 30 channels of information to work with, but normal human nerves can have hundreds. The trick is to figure out what language these nerves speak in order to convey normal sensation.

"While he felt his thumb, it was like, if your hand falls asleep and as you're waking up, you get that tingling feeling," Tyler said. "So we spent six months trying out different paradigms, sort of babbling in different languages, if you will. The next big moment was one day we went in and tried this new new pattern and, he said, 'I don’t feel tingling at all. It's just like I'm feeling my pulse.'"

Next, Tyler’s group wants to learn how our nerves encode more complex information, say the difference between sandpaper and silk, thus continuing to improve the missing limb's sense of touch in the brain, increasing the connection between human and device.


Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.