Israeli study offers hope of ‘rewiring’ nerves to restore lost sense of touch

Poised to help many who have lost touch sensation to injury or amputation, tech feeds sensor’s signals to healthy nerves; tests on rats documented in peer-reviewed research

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

An illustration of the new Tel Aviv University sensor to recreate the sense of touch (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)
An illustration of the new Tel Aviv University sensor to recreate the sense of touch (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

New Israeli nanotechnology will restore the sense of touch for people who have lost it due injury or amputation, scientists say.

A Tel Aviv University lab has developed a tiny sensor that can be implanted into fingers, toes, or any other body part that has lost the sense of touch. It “bypasses” the broken nerves in that area, and “wires” the sensation to other healthy nerves.

Biomedical engineer Dr. Ben M. Maoz told The Times of Israel that he had the idea after hearing from Dr. Amir Arami, a colleague at Tel Aviv University and microsurgeon at Sheba Medical Center, about how many of his patients fail to regain sensation. Now he has successfully tested his invention on rats, reporting his success in the peer-reviewed journal ACS Nano.

“This is super exciting, because we were able to generate something that gives real benefits to people facing real problems, and it all started with a chat between me and a friend,” Maoz said.

“There are already some prosthetic limbs that connect to nerves in the body, but the challenge we took on is completely different — people with working hands or fingers, but who have lost sensation and want to once again feel a sense of touch,” he added.

“There is no solution for these people, but we have found one.”

A highly magnified image of the implant that restores the sense of touch for injured limbs (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

His tiny sensor is implanted in the nerve of the injured limb, and connected to a healthy nerve. The body quickly learns that the nerve is receiving signals from a different source, and interprets them correctly, meaning that the sense of touch is restored.

Maoz said that the technology will have a greater impact on quality of life than is initially obvious, noting that touch is an essential sense for calculating the proper amount of pressure needed to push a button with a finger, or even to walk straight.

Dr Ben Maoz (courtesy Tel Aviv University/Yonatan Tzur)

“Simple tasks like holding keys or cellphones all require us to have a sense of touch, in order for us to accurately judge the pressure we need to apply,” he said.

The device, though electronic, needs no battery, as it generates power from the very same movement that it is tracking and mimicking in nerve signals, Maoz said.

To carry out the experiment, Maoz’s team cut the sensory nerves out of one paw of rats and installed the device in some while leaving it numb in others. A tracker allowed the team to monitor sensation in the rat paws.

“The rats whose nerves had been cut and who didn’t have the device couldn’t feel, while those given the implant had the same degree of sensation as those whose nerves had not been cut,” he said. “This indicates that the device works well.”

“Next, we want to test the implant in larger animals, and at a later stage implant our sensors in the fingers of people who have lost the ability to sense touch,” he added. “Restoring this ability can significantly improve people’s functioning.”

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