On a bitter, soul-shivering, damp, biting gray February day in Cleveland—that is to say, on a February day in Cleveland—a handless man is handling a nonexistent ball. Igor Spetic lost his right hand when his forearm was pulped in an industrial accident six years ago and had to be amputated. In an operation four years ago, a team of surgeons implanted a set of small translucent “interfaces” into the neural circuits of his upper arm. This afternoon, in a basement lab at a Veterans Administration hospital, the wires are hooked up directly to a prosthetic hand—plastic, flesh-colored, five-fingered, and articulated—that is affixed to what remains of his arm. The hand has more than a dozen pressure sensors within it, and their signals can be transformed by a computer into electric waves like those natural to the nervous system. The sensors in the prosthetic hand feed information from the world into the wires in Spetic’s arm. Since, from the brain’s point of view, his hand is still there, it needs only to be recalled to life.
What the Science of Touch Says About Us