Humans do a lot of things with their hands: We squeeze avocados at the grocery store, scratch our dogs behind the ears and hold each others’ hands. These are things that many people who have lost limbs can’t do.
CU Boulder’s Jacob Segil is working to bring back feeling to amputees' fingertips, including veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The biomedical engineer is an instructor in the Engineering Plus program and a research healthcare scientist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“In my field, we have a gold standard, which is the physiological hand,” Segil said. “We’re trying to re-create it, and we’re still so far off.”
Far off, but closer than you might think. Segil is a participant in a long-running research effort led by Dustin Tyler at Case Western Reserve University and the VA. The team has used a unique neural interface and a series of electronic sensors to recreate a sense of touch for a small number of amputees who are missing their hands.
In a study published in April 2020 in the journal Scientific Reports, the group demonstrated just how effective this sensory restoration technology can be — helping one amputee experience his hand adopting a series of postures, such as a gesture resembling the thumbs-up sign.
For Segil, who recently received a $1 million Career Development Award from the VA to continue his work in Colorado, the project is a chance to use his engineering skills to help people.
“As a VA researcher, your work can help people who have served our country,” Segil said. “It’s a powerful motivator.”
Photo courtesy Jacob Segil