Life-Enhancing Impact of Biomedical Research

The nexus between man and machine

 

Human touch. The tactile sensation that engages us with the world in a way perhaps no other sense can.

For people who have lost an upper extremity to accident or war, restoring the sensory perception of touch in a prosthetic hand means the difference between simply holding their wife’s hand and actually feeling her touch in theirs.  

The ability to hold a loved one’s hand in a meaningful way is exactly what is behind the innovative technology by Case Western Reserve University researcher Dustin Tyler PhD ’99, associate professor of biomedical engineering. He has been working toward this interface of man-to-machine for nearly 24 years. The technology developed by Tyler and his team functions by creating a connection between the prosthetic hand and the brain, allowing users to actually feel the sensation of picking up an object – or the touch of another human being.

“The sense of touch is one of the ways we interact with objects around us,” Tyler stated. “Our goal is not just to restore function, but to build a reconnection to the world.” The user feels like an actual hand, and not a prosthetic, is touching the object. The touch feels real, he said.

Tyler likens the experience to that of a gaming control interface that vibrates. Without touch, you still know that the controller is vibrating, but you have to process that sensation in your brain to understand it. But with the implanted technology, if you virtually see your hand touch something and feel it in the fingertips, there’s no processing needed – it’s an immediate, natural sensation.

The project in more recent years has been significantly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) primarily as a result of so many amputations coming out of the wars in the Middle East. Tyler started working on the prosthetic hand research beginning around 2002, after having researched spinal cord injuries for ten years, some as a graduate student in neural engineering. After obtaining his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Case in 1999, Tyler spent some time in industry before returning full time as a faculty member.

“It is really about the training from Case, the expertise in neural engineering, coupled with what I like to call my second Ph.D. – when I went to industry for five years – that enabled this research,” Tyler said. “Now, my degree has come full circle as my graduate work is what really led to the capability of doing this clinically and getting the right people to notice and get interested.”

 

  

Igor Spetic (left), who lost his right hand in a work-related accident in 2000, shakes hands with Dustin Tyler, PhD ’99. The two have been working together since Spetic was implanted with Tyler’s technology more than four years ago. Spetic is grateful he can once again feel the sensation of his wife’s hand in his prosthetic one. He is currently pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at another university and hopes that in the future anybody that is an amputee will be able to benefit from this remarkable research out of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Case Western Reserve.