The £1.4m project will focus on how to produce a prosthetic hand that can sense pressure and temperature and send the information back to the brain.
If successful, it would enable much higher levels of function for people who have lost their limbs.
The study hopes to create electrodes in the bionic limb that can wrap around nerve endings in the arm.
Led by Newcastle University, the project also involves specialists from the universities of Leeds, Essex, Keele, Southampton and Imperial College London.
Plug and socket
Dr Kianoush Nazarpour, a lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Newcastle University and leader of the study, said: “The UK leads the way in the design of prosthetic limbs but until now one of the limiting factors has been the technology to allow the hand to communicate with the brain.
“If we can design a system that allows this two-way communication it would help people to naturally reach out and pick up a glass, for example, whilst maintaining eye contact in a conversation, or pick up an apple without bruising it.”
The team, who have been given £1.4m for the project from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will build fingertip sensors to give the prosthesis a realistic sense of touch and a ‘virtual hand’ will provide information on the sense of the hand’s position and movement.
Dr Rory O’Connor, senior lecturer in rehabilitation medicine at the University of Leeds, added: “We are seeing many more active young people who are surviving severe injuries that result in them losing one or more limbs and requiring a prosthesis.
“The current designs are like a plug and socket. The socket fits over the end of the limb and picks up signals from the muscles. The prosthesis fits onto this and by learning to flex certain muscles the patient can work the hand.
“The drawback is that for many patients – particularly survivors of trauma – the muscle ends are too damaged to be able to use the limb.”