Everywhere you look, there is cause for optimism with a number of companies developing devices designed to make life easier both for those who have lost limbs and those who have lost senses such as sight.

Some of the recent breakthroughs have come from Leeds-based prosthetics company Steeper, which recently launched the smallest version to date of its prosthetic hand. Developed using Formula 1 racing car technology, the bebionic small hand is built around a skeletal structure with miniaturised components designed to provide the most true to life movements. The company says that the bebionic small hand marks a turning point in the world of prosthetics as it perfectly mimics the functions of a real hand through 14 different grips and its size makes it ideal for women, teenagers and small-framed men. Nicky Ashwell, of London, became the first UK user. The 29-year-old, who is a Product Manager at an online fashion forecasting and trend service, was born without a right hand.

Before being fitted with the bebionic small hand, she used a cosmetic hand without movement; as a result, Nicky learned to carry out tasks with one hand. The bebionic small hand has been a major improvement to her life, enabling her to do things previously impossible with one hand such as riding a bike, gripping weights with both hands, using cutlery and opening her purse. She said: “When I first tried the bebionic small hand it was an exciting and strange feeling; it immediately opened up so many more possibilities for me.

“I realised that I had been making life challenging for myself when I didn’t need to. The movements now come easily and look natural. I keep finding myself being surprised by the little things, like being able to carry my purse while holding my boyfriend’s hand. I’ve also been able to do things never before possible like riding a bike and lifting weights.”

The technology behind the bebionic small hand uses sensors triggered by the user’s muscle movements that then connect to individual motors in each finger and powerful microprocessors. The technology comprises a unique system which tracks and senses each finger through its every move – mimicking the functions of a real hand. Development follows seven years of research and manufacturing, including the use of Formula 1 techniques and military technology along with advanced materials including aerograde aluminium and rare Earth magnets. Ted Varley, Technical Director at Steeper, said: “There’s a trend of technology getting more intricate and Steeper has embraced this. An accurate skeletal structure was firstly developed, with the complex technology then specifically developed to fit within this in order to maintain anatomical accuracy. In other myoelectric hands, the technology is developed first, at the expense of the lifelikeness.

“The idea is to make prosthetics simpler to use. Previously, the first two fingers in a prosthetic hand would be linked to the thumb, making for a pinch-like grip. What we are developing is prosthetics where each finger moves on its own. The brain is a remarkable thing and will fill in the gaps by responding to the signals from the electrodes on the arm. That means that the user can do things like grip a wine glass or a piece of fruit without crushing it.”

Another UK company making great advances is Touch Bionics, a spin-out from the UK’s National Health Service, which has developed its own electrically-powered prosthetic hand with five independently powered fingers. The company recently revealed its latest version, the i-limb quantum, which can change grips with a simple gesture and CEO Ian Stevens said: “The new hand combines unsurpassed functionality with design style. It is smarter, faster, stronger and smaller than any of its predecessors.” Rebekah Marine, an i-limb wearer, said: “I particularly appreciate the ability to almost effortlessly choose different grips using subtle but distinct gestures. The new extra small size will appeal in particular to female users and children.” In the United States, scientists in San Jose, California, have developed a visual aid to help those with sight loss which is controlled by the eyes, and three Austrian men have become the first to undergo ‘bionic reconstruction’, enabling them to use a robotic prosthetic hand.

All three were victims of car or climbing accidents and suffered brachial plexus injuries, where damage occurs to the network of nerves that control movement and sensation in the upper limbs. The latest development in the technique came from Professor Oskar Aszmann, Director of the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Restoration of Extremity Function at the Medical University of Vienna, and engineers from the Department of Neurorehabilitation Engineering of the University Medical Center Goettingen first requires amputation of the limb. This is then replaced with a robotic prosthesis which uses sensors that respond to electrical impulses in the muscle. Three months after amputation, all three men had much better movement in their hands.

“What we are developing is prosthetics where each finger moves on its own. The brain is a remarkable thing and will fill in the gaps by responding to the signals from the electrodes on the arm.”

Ted Varley

Technical Director at Steeper