Researchers from the University of Melbourne believe they have discovered a way to help amputees and stroke victims, developing a robotic arm which will allow users to experience the sensation of touch.
The discovery could help return full movement and the sense of touch to amputees and aid recovery for patients with paralysis.
Research into the development is being overseen by the St Vincent’s Hospital-based Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery.
St Vincent’s Director for Orthopaedics Peter Choong said a prototype arm would be developed based on research and technology that allowed for an enhanced sensory element, which could restore the sensation of touch.
It will expand upon current robotic limbs that use electrodes – or “buzzes and clicks” – to assist a person’s senses, pushing boundaries in transmitting messages from the brain directly to the arm, Prof. Choong said.
The enhanced limb would function by “using the patient’s own nerves and tissue engineering, muscle and nerve engineering and hooking it up to the artificial limb to act in a normal way,” he told 9news.com.au.
“We’re trying to build up something that can also feel and perceive strength and pressure, feeding it back to the patient through an artificial means.
"What we really want is for the machine to talk back to the brain and that's where a lot of the science is."
University of Melbourne robotics engineer Denny Oetomo told 9NEWS the team working on the research don't think of the arm as a "tool".
"Essentially it would be a limb rather than a tool," he said.
The Aikenhead Centre combined forces with engineers from the University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong to use 3D printing to create microchips for communication between limb tissues and electrodes. The chips allow movement messages to pass from the brain to the robotic arm.
A prototype will be developed by the University of Melbourne within the next year. It builds on the work of St Vincent’s Hospital neurologist Mark Cook, who decoded the signals of the brain to be able to control complex robotics.
Prof. Cook described the process as “turning thoughts into mechanical action”.
While there is no indication of costs for individual models, Prof. Choong said the outcome would be priceless.
“It will be costly, but for patients, losing an arm is costly,” he said.
The collaborative group is pushing for an Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery (ACMD) to be built, which would bring together leading research centres including St Vincent’s, University of Melbourne, St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, Bionics Institute, O’Brien Institute, Australian Catholic University, University of Wollongong, Centre for Eye Research Australia, RMIT University, Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, and Swinburne University.
The proposed centre would continue developing biomedical solutions, and would be built on the corner of Nicholson Street and Victoria Parade for $180 million.
Researchers hope to continue their developments to include prosthetic legs, and technology to help people who have been affected by incontinence.
The proposal has seen leading centres chip in $60 million, along with a further $60 million pledged by the state government.
The team are now urging the federal government to follow suit.
“We’re now looking for the federal government to put their money where their mouth is – it says it’s in for innovation, that’s what it has to do,” he said.
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