A New "Seeing" Prosthetic May Make Life Easier for Amputees

Courtesy of Newcastle University
Courtesy of Newcastle University

Every year, about 185,000 people undergo an amputation in the United States. Bionic prosthetic limbs for amputees who have lost their hands or part of their arms have come a long way, but it's hard to replicate grasping and holding objects the way a regular hand can. Current prostheses work by reading the myoelectric signals—electrical activity of the muscles recorded from the surface of the stump—but don't always work well for grasping motions, which require varied use of force in addition to opening and closing fingers.

Now, however, researchers at Newcastle University in the UK have developed a trial bionic hand that "sees" with the help of a camera, allowing its wearer to reach for and grasp objects fluidly, without having to put much thought into it. Their results were published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

The research team, co-led by Ghazal Ghazaei, a Ph.D. student at Newcastle University, and Kianoush Nazarpour, a senior lecturer in biomedical engineering, used a machine learning algorithm known as “deep learning,” in which a computer system can learn and classify patterns when provided with a large amount of training—in this case, they provided the computer with visual patterns. The kind of deep learning system they used, known as a convolutional neural network, or CNN, learns better the more data is provided to it.

“After many iterations, the network learns what features to extract from each image to be able to classify a new object and provide the appropriate grasp for it,” Ghazaei tells Mental Floss.


They first trained the CNN on 473 common objects from a database known as the Amsterdam Library of Objects (ALOI), each of which had been photographed 72 times from different angles and orientations, and in different lighting. They then labeled the images into four grasp types: palm wrist natural (as when picking up a cup); palm wrist pronated (such as picking up the TV remote); tripod (thumb and two fingers), and pinch (thumb and first finger). For example, "a screw would be classified as a pinch grasp type” of object, Ghazaei says.

To be able to observe the CNN training in real time, they then created a smaller, secondary library of 71 objects from the list, photographed each of these 72 times, and then showed the images to the CNN. (The researchers are also adapting this smaller library to create their own grasp library of everyday objects to refine the learning system.) Eventually the computer learns which grasp it needs to use to pick up each object.

To test the prosthetic with participants, they put two transradial (through the forearm or below the elbow) amputees through six trials while wearing the device. In each trial, the experimenter placed a series of 24 objects at a standard distance on the table in front of the participant. For each object, “the user aims for an object and points the hand toward it, so the camera sees the object. The camera is triggered and a snapshot is taken and given to our algorithm. The algorithm then suggests a grasp type,” Ghazaei explains.

The hand automatically assumes the shape of the chosen grasp type, and helps the user pick up the object. The camera is activated by the user’s aim, and it is measured by the user’s electromyogram (EMG) signals in real time. Ghazaei says the computer-driven prosthetic is “more user friendly” than conventional prosthetic hands, because it takes the effort of determining the grasp type out of the equation.


The six trials were broken into different conditions aimed at training the prosthetic. In the first two trials, the subjects got a lot of visual feedback from the system, including being able to see the snapshot the CNN took. In the third and fourth trials, the prosthetic only received raw EMG signals or the control signals. In the fifth and sixth, the subjects had no computer-based visual feedback at all, but in the sixth, they could reject the grasp identified by the hand if it was the wrong one to use by re-aiming the webcam at the object to take a new picture. “This allowed the CNN structure to classify the new image and identify the correct grasp,” Ghazaei says.

For all trials, the subjects were able to use the prosthetic to grasp an object 73 percent of the time. However, in the sixth test, when they had the opportunity to correct an error, their performances rose to 79 and 86 percent.

Though the project is currently only in prototyping phase right now, the team has been given clearance from the UK's National Health Service to scale up the study with a larger number of participants, which they hope will expand the CNN’s ability to learn and correct itself.

“Due to the relatively low cost associated with the design, it has the potential to be implemented soon,” Ghazaei says.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More


This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.


Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances


- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games


- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets


- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs


- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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The Great Tryptophan Lie: Eating Turkey Does Not Make You Tired

H. Armstrong Roberts/iStock via Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/iStock via Getty Images

While you’re battling your kids for the best napping spot after Thanksgiving dinner, feel free to use this as a diversion tactic: It’s a myth that eating turkey makes you tired.

It’s true that turkey contains L-Tryptophan, an amino acid involved in sleep. Your body uses it to produce a B vitamin called niacin, which generates the neurotransmitter serotonin, which yields the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate your sleeping patterns. However, plenty of other common foods contain comparable levels of tryptophan, including other poultry, meat, cheese, yogurt, fish, and eggs.

Furthermore, in order for tryptophan to produce serotonin in your brain, it first has to make it across the blood-brain barrier, which many other amino acids are also trying to do. To give tryptophan a leg up in the competition, it needs the help of carbohydrates. Registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer told WebMD that the best way to boost serotonin is to eat a small, all-carbohydrate snack a little while after you’ve eaten something that contains tryptophan, and the carbs will help ferry the tryptophan from your bloodstream to your brain.

But Thanksgiving isn’t exactly about eating small, well-timed snacks. It’s more about heaps of mashed potatoes, mountains of stuffing, and generous globs of gravy—and that, along with alcohol, is more likely the reason you collapse into a spectacular food coma after your meal. Overeating (especially of foods high in fat) means your body has to work extra hard to digest everything. To get the job done, it redirects blood to the digestive system, leaving little energy for anything else. And since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it also slows down your brain and other organs.

In short, you can still hold turkey responsible for your Thanksgiving exhaustion, but you should make sure it knows it can share the blame with the mac and cheese, spiked apple cider, and that second piece of pumpkin pie.

[h/t WebMD]