A team of researchers developing "digital hand" technology (described in an article last year by Scientific American.com) designed to help people with carpal tunnel syndrome and other disorders use computers has received nearly $473,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a commercial prototype device.

The scientists, led by Michael Linderman, president and chief technology officer for Norconnect, Inc., in Ogdensburg, N.Y., next week are set to begin crafting a glove (minus the finger tips) dotted with biosensors that will be able to translate electromyographic (EMG) signals from hand muscles into text on a computer screen, a trick especially useful for office workers suffering from carpal tunnel, which occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the hand and controls sensations to the palm side of the thumb and fingers, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist. Other possible uses include education (to correct handwriting problems), medicine (to better understand muscle interactions), wireless remote control of robots, note taking and text-message writing for mobile phones.

"Our goal is to develop a commercial prototype that will record EMG signals during the process of handwriting and convert them into text," says Linderman, who credits University of Arizona College of Medicine–Phoenix associate professor of physiology Andrew Fuglevand and Carlo De Luca, director of Boston University College of Engineering's NeuroMuscular Research Center, as key consultants to his project. "We should be able to transfer this text message to (mobile devices such as Apple's) iPhone."

During the initial phase (paid for with a $100,000 NSF grant from 2007) the researchers, who also hail from Duke University's Department of Neurobiology and St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., conducted a series of experiments to better understand how the hand's muscles work during the act of writing. As with any bodily movement, muscle tissue contracts and emits electrical signals that are sent to the brain when pen is put to paper.

Image © Michael Linderman