Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Scientists unveil world's first bionic fingers

Maria Antonia Iglesias
Maria Antonia Iglesias can now hold a pen using the ProDigits

Experts have unveiled what they claim are the world's first bionic fingers which they hope will transform the lives of people with missing digits.

The motor-powered ProDigits have been developed by Touch Bionics, the Livingston, West Lothian company which made the bionic i-Limb hand.

The unit fits over the person's palm to help people with any number of missing digits.

Those fitted with the device can bend, touch, pick up and point.

Developers hope the device will be a boost to the partial hand amputee population, which is estimated at about 52,000 in the EU and 1.2 million worldwide.

Phil Newman, marketing director of Touch Bionics, said: "There has been no solution like this for the partial hand amputee community.

"The ProDigits provide a powered device with a grip and it has returned these people to a level of functionality and independence.

"It is supporting a community that has never had support before."

Even a simple thing like holding and lifting a glass of water to drink from was impossible before, but with ProDigits I can do it easily
Maria Antonia Iglesias
Digit amputee

It is estimated that a two-finger amputation leaves an individual with a 20%-40% hand impairment, depending on which fingers are affected.

The custom made ProDigits are fitted on to what remains of the hand, and can be controlled by myoelectric sensors which register muscle signals from the residual finger or palm.

Alternatively they can be controlled by a pressure sensitive touch pad, which relies on the remnant digit or tissue surrounding the metacarpal bone to provide the necessary pressure to activate the finger.

A special stall feature allows the device to detect when it has closed around an object so that it does not crush it.

This also allows users to point single digits and configure the hand in various grip patterns.

Skin covering

Patients can choose from a range of coverings, from hi-tech clear and black robotic skins to a more natural looking "living skin" option.

One of those fitted with ProDigits is former concert pianist, Maria Antonia Iglesias, from Catalonia, who underwent amputation of all extremities following pneumococcal septic shock of unknown origin in July 2003.

They have enabled her to write, hold cutlery and drink from a glass again, tasks she previously struggled to do.

The 42-year-old said: "I am very pleased to be part of this project and the benefits my new hand is giving me are like a dream.

"Even a simple thing like holding and lifting a glass of water to drink from was impossible before, but with ProDigits I can do it easily."

The ProDigits prosthetics are tailor-made for each patient and cost around £35,000 to £45,000, which includes the cost of fitting, occupational therapy and the skin covering.

Most of those using them at the moment are privately funded but the company said it hoped to look at working with the national health service in the future.



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