Amputees Will Feel Again Thanks To FIU Research

Photo Courtesy of FIU Media Relations

Teresa Schuster/Contributing Writer


Amputees could soon feel again, thanks to a prosthetics system being developed by FIU’s Adaptive Neural Systems Laboratory team.

The system works by surgically implanting wires in an amputee’s nerve endings, stimulating them in response to their prosthetic hand’s movements. This enables them to feel things like pressure and touch.

Unlike other systems, it is designed to be independent of the prosthetic hand, so that it can work with almost any model.

The project began at FIU almost a decade ago, and in 2017, the team implanted their system in their first test subject, Jason Little.

“We turned on the system for [him] and [he] started feeling sensation for the first time in many years after losing [his] arm,” said Andres Pena, a Ph.D. student who has been part of the team since its inception. “We were super excited.”

Little said that the system has enabled him to complete tasks that were previously difficult. 

“Prior to the surgery, I didn’t know how much of a grip I had,” Little said. “Imagine trying to cut a tomato without holding it.”

Little is now enjoying the capabilities provided by the system. 

“If I could describe it with one word,” he said, “it would be confidence.”

Now, after they received a $6 million grant from the Department of Defense in October, the team intends to expand their research. The funds will be used to conduct additional clinical trials on amputees, partnering with Walter Reed, a veterans hospital based in Washington, D.C..

This grant is the largest the team has received so far, according to Pena, who said that the money will make a world of difference.

The team’s emphasis on making a difference was what convinced first-year Ph.D. student Aliyah Shell to join. After interning at a prosthetics office, she realized her passion for helping people with amputations. “I wanted to enhance their quality of life,” she said.

Because of its human component, the project stands out from others at FIU, according to Tommaso Benigni, another Ph.D. student working on the project.

“Other people are studying the heart, but they’re not inside the heart…We’re inside someone’s nervous system at this moment,” he said. “That’s one of the big differences and that’s why we got the grant.”

Left to right: Andres Pena, Aliyah Shell, Diego Aguilar and Tommaso Benigni, graduate student researchers. Teresa Schuster/PantherNOW

Pena agreed, saying that university research is often misconstrued as only involving writing papers.

“We are actually doing it all the way from concept to idea to seeing the person’s face react when they feel something,” Pena said.

But working with human subjects also brought challenges. 

“When you deal with people you need to respect where your limit is with them,” said Diego Aguilar, a Ph.D. student part of the team, who manages regulatory work. 

Pena said that controlling for subjectivity in experiments and surveys was difficult, and since many of these experiments had never been done before, the equipment necessary to collect data for them did not exist. So, the team created their own.

“Surprisingly, the group is very small for all the accomplishments we’ve had,” said Pena. When they attend conferences, he said, people imagine that it is five times the size.

And although it includes four experienced faculty members and a few engineers, as well as the students, Benigni marveled at the level of trust and responsibility placed on the students, saying that they aren’t considered junior to faculty. 

“When it comes to input,” added Pena, “everybody’s on the same level because everybody has the same voice.”

The team has big plans for the future, intending to turn their project into a startup, in order to provide their new prosthetics system to hospitals.

“We want to make it an option for a person to get sensory feedback,” Pena said. “I envision it as going to get a prosthetic hand, and I don’t need to think about whether it feels or not. It should be the standard.”

The system’s potential extends beyond helping amputees. 

The team says that its neural interface has other applications, such as modulating organ function and relieving pain through using electrodes to stimulate parts of the nervous system, which they plan to explore in the future.

“There’s always a lot more we can do with the system,” said Pena. “There’s no finish line.”


CAUTION – Investigational Device. Limited by Federal (or United States) law to investigational use.

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