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Man controlled robot hand with thoughts, scientists say

Amputee Pierpaolo Petruzziello showed off the robotic hand yesterday. He used the device during a one-month experiment. Amputee Pierpaolo Petruzziello showed off the robotic hand yesterday. He used the device during a one-month experiment. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)
By Ariel David
Associated Press / December 3, 2009

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ROME - An Italian who lost his left forearm in a car crash was successfully linked to a robotic hand, allowing him to feel sensations in the artificial limb and control it with his thoughts, scientists said yesterday.

During a one-month experiment conducted last year, Pierpaolo Petruzziello, 26, said he felt like his lost arm had grown back, although he was only controlling a robotic hand that was not even attached to his body.

“It’s a matter of mind, of concentration,’’ Petruzziello said. “When you think of it as your hand and forearm, it all becomes easier.’’

Though similar experiments have been successful before, the European scientists who led the project say this was the first time a patient has been able to make such complex movements using his mind to control a biomechanic hand connected to his nervous system.

The challenge for scientists now will be to create a system that can connect a patient’s nervous system and a prosthetic limb for years, not just a month.

The team, based in Italy, said at a news conference in Rome yesterday that in 2008 it implanted electrodes into the nerves located in what remained of Petruzziello’s left arm, which was cut off in a crash three years ago.

The prosthetic was not implanted on the patient, only connected through the electrodes. During the news conference, video was shown of Petruzziello as he concentrated to give orders to the hand placed next to him.

During the month he had the electrodes connected, he learned to wiggle the robotic fingers independently, make a fist, grab objects, and make other movements.

The $3 million project, funded by the European Union, took five years to complete and produced several scientific papers that have been submitted to top journals, including Science Translational Medicine and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said Paolo Maria Rossini, a neurologist who led the team working at Rome’s Campus Bio-Medico, a university and hospital that specializes in health sciences.

It only took Petruzziello a few days to master use of the robotic hand, Rossini said.

By the time the experiment was over, the hand obeyed the commands it received from the man’s brain in 95 percent of cases.

Petruzziello, an Italian who lives in Brazil, said the feedback he got from the hand was amazingly accurate.

“It felt almost the same as a real hand,’’ he said.

Similar, shorter-term experiments in 2004-2005 hooked up amputees to a less-advanced robotic arm with a pliers-shaped end, and patients were only able to make basic movements, a team member said.

Specialists not involved in the study said the challenge now is ensuring that such a system can remain in the patient for years and not just a month.