Years after they had lost parts of their arms in industrial accidents, Igor Spetic and Keith Vonderhuevel once again felt sensations -- such as the fuzz of a cotton ball, or a trickle of water -- seemingly on the backs of their prosthetic hands. The touches were lab-created, done as part of a study on how to electronically re-create touch for people who have lost their hands.
The study, published yesterday, is the first to create such natural-feeling sensations artificially. "I knew immediately it was cotton," Spetic said in a statement. Cotton balls, he explained, used to give him goosebumps; he said he used to make his family open pill bottles for him to avoid them. This sensation gave him goosebumps as well.
Other groups of researchers have tried to re-create a sense of touch for amputees by buzzing their nerves with electricity… but study volunteers have always reported the resulting sensation was weird, like the pins-and-needles feeling you get when your foot falls asleep. It was as if those old experiments weren't speaking to the brain in the right language, says Dustin Tyler, a bioengineer at Case Western University and the lead researcher in the study involving Vonderhuevel and Spetic. "We're beginning to speak the right language now."