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The Magic Touch: Loyola Grad Helps Amputees Sense Touch Again

Courtesy of Aadeel AkhtarArmy Sgt. Garrett Anderson (right) lost his hand in an explosion in Iraq in 2005. He agreed to test Aadeel Akhtar's prosthetic hand from Pysonic and said it’s worked wonders.

When retired U.S. Army Sgt. Garrett Anderson lost his right hand after a roadside bomb exploded in October 2005 in Iraq, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to feel it being held by his wife or child again.

Not until Aadeel Akhtar, a Loyola graduate, founded Psyonic in 2015, a company making advances in prosthetic technology for amputees worldwide. The company doesn’t have a product on the market yet, but it’s working on developing a marketable prototype to have out by early 2020.

Psyonic creates prosthetic hands that have the ability to make movements through a machine learning algorithm. The algorithm learns the user’s muscle patterns when making various hand movements such as an open hand, fist, key grasp, pinch or wrist rotation. The company is based out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s technology incubator, a division of the university which helps launch startup tech companies.

Psyonic intends to be the first commercially available hand that gives sensory feedback to the user through pressure sensors located in the fingertips which stimulate the skin and nerves in the arm electrically when the user touches an object. This sensory feedback allows the user to feel how much pressure they are putting on an object.

Anderson, 41, is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is a resident of the small village of Gifford, Illinois. Because he’s one of only a few amputees on campus, he was willing to help test Psyonic’s device. Anderson said the device was different from other prosthetics he’s tried.

“Aadeel is doing sensory feedback option on the fingertips to give sensory feedback of holding something, or grabbing something, holding your child or wife’s hand or even something as simple as knowing how much pressure you’re putting [on an object],” Anderson said. “That’s a game-changer when it comes to sensory feedback, only because I haven’t had that for ten-plus years.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from Loyola in 2007, Akhtar, 31, earned a master’s degree in computer science in 2008 from Loyola. Although Akhtar earned his doctorate’s degree in neuroscience and a master’s in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he said his passion for serving others was molded at Loyola.

“One of the cool things about Loyola, or at least when I was there, is that they were really big on service learning,” Akhtar said. “I feel like that really helped to bolster that the things that I work on, I want to make sure they have an impact in the world, and I think that Loyola really fosters that kind of environment, which is really unique.”

Akhtar said if the school’s engineering program, which opened in 2015, had existed in his time at Loyola, he would have taken advantage of it.

“I was really excited to hear about the engineering science program at Loyola, and I definitely would have taken advantage of that if it existed when I was a student,” Akhtar said. “That being said, the computer science program also has lots of great research in neuroengineering going on with professors like Mark Albert.”

Albert has been a professor in the computer science department at Loyola since 2013. In 2012, as a postdoc researcher in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center for Bionic Medicine, he first met Akhtar. Albert was in charge of organizing Akhtar’s summer internship.

“I think having such capable and engaging people like Aadeel around just stirs the imagination,” Albert said. “There is so much we can do to help others, both through direct effort and through technological innovation, but there are barriers which turn away even the most well-intentioned people. To see students like Aadeel take their plans and follow through is inspiring.”

Akhtar began developing bionic hands with other students at the University of Illinois in 2014. The same year, the team got into contact with the Range of Motion Project, a nonprofit company which provides prosthetic and orthotic care for people without access to these resources. The team took a trip to Ecuador to test its hand on an amputee. It was after this trip that Akhtar knew he wanted to start a company based on the work the team had done.

Juan Suquillo, the Ecuadorian amputee, had lost his hand 35 years earlier in a machine gun blast from a helicopter in a border war between Ecuador and Peru.

“[Suquillo] made a pinch for the first time with our prosthetic hand in 35 years. This was just an incredibly moving moment for him and for us, and when we came back from this trip, I realized that I don’t want this work to just stay in research,” Akhtar said. “I wanted to make sure that this technology can really affect the lives of people everywhere. That’s how Psyonic really came to fruition.”

Akhtar was visiting Pakistan as a child with his family when he became familiar with amputees for the first time. He said he remembers meeting a little girl his age who was missing a leg.

“She was hobbling towards me, she was using a broken tree branch as a crutch,” Akhtar said. “At the time, I wondered how we have the same ethnic heritage but vastly different qualities of life. As I grew older, I began to realize that this was due to a lack of resources, be it healthcare resources, safety resources [or] financial resources.”

This experience ignited Akhtar’s interest in the study of prosthesis and his desire to make prosthetics affordable for amputees.

Psyonic is working to make a hand completely covered by health insurance by using cheaper materials and assembling the hands on-site. The hand is rubber bone with a silicone cover over it and is life-like and flexible, with the ability to withstand the impact of a hammer. Additionally, Akhtar said the hand is faster and lighter than the average human hand.

“When I work with Aadeel, he asks me what I want to see in a prosthetic, and I tell him that when I have a prosthetic I want a prosthetic that is durable,” Anderson said. “If it’s not a durable prosthetic or a functional prosthetic, it’s useless to wear.”

Most prosthetics are typically made out of molded plastic and steel, which Akhtar said can drive up the cost. Akhtar said many prosthetics on the market cost as much as $30,000, and they’re not durable.

“We have talked with hundreds of patients and clinicians and the number one thing that they complain about with their $30,000 prosthetic hands is that they break within a week of using it, just because [patients] are walking around and their hand bangs into something,” Akhtar said.

While Anderson gets prosthetics covered because he served in the military, he appreciates that Akhtar and his team at Psyonic are making prosthetics more accessible for people of different backgrounds.

“I think what they’re doing is pretty nice. Being able to offer [prosthetics] to individuals that could never have a prosthetic is pretty remarkable,” Anderson said. “For the individuals that don’t have the resources that I have or that others may have, this is a game-changer for them.”

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