I read an article in last week’s metro about a man named Christopher Taylor, who was being photographed chopping up vegetables in preparation for his dinner. You might be thinking that this is nothing special, people do that all the time – except Christopher has only the use of his left hand as he lost his right hand in a Jet Ski accident. So how is he able to chop vegetables then?
The answer to that is the Michelangelo Hand, an electronic prosthetic arm created by Ottobock.
Now, I am fortunate enough to have a bit of inside knowledge on this very clever device, having worked with Ottobock’s Passion for the Paralympics Exhibition which toured the UK in the run up to and during the Paralympics – with the Michelangelo hand as its main attraction.
The unique feature of the hand is that it has a moving opposable thumb, which is vital for the owner to grip items. The index and middle fingers are also capable of movement, and the wrist is able rotate and move up and down, which enables the hand to function more like a human hand. So how is it controlled then?
You may be thinking that it is linked to the owner’s nervous system, which is kind of true but not directly. You may not know this already, but anytime you contract a muscle in your body you produce a tiny electronic signal on your skin. The Michelangelo hand has electrodes that can be placed on the surface of the owner’s skin, which can read these tiny signals and transmit that signal up to that hand to perform a specific movement. There are no buttons being pressed as the hand is just controlled by the natural muscle movements in the owner’s residual limb.
Obviously, the owner will need to be trained to do a specific muscle movement for a specific hand action, but once they are up to speed then they are capable of doing the majority of tasks, from gripping a key or bank card to carrying large boxes.
One of the drawbacks though is that the owner would have to constantly watch were they were putting the Michelangelo Hand in relation to the rest of their body, as obviously they would have no receptors at the end of the hand to tell their brain where it was. For example if you were to put your hand a distance behind your head and wiggle your fingers, that movement would give your brain an idea of how far away it was in proportion to the rest of your body. If you did it with the Michelangelo Hand then you would have no idea where it was. It is also not cheap, with the price coming to about £47,000, but then again it is life changing equipment.
Ottobock do not just specialise in hands either, as they also produce electronic prosthetics legs that produce such a good natural movement that you would have no idea the owner had a prosthetic leg unless they showed you. They also have sponsored the Paralympics for 24 years, providing free repairs for all athletes’ equipment, as well as producing the equipment for many paralympic sports like running blades and basketball wheelchairs.
The exhibition itself was a huge success, with tens of thousands of people able to learn a bit more about the Paralympics and even try some of the sports like wheelchair basketball and hand cycling. Ultimately it was a pleasure to be a part of!