Issue of the Week: Personal Growth, Disease

The audacious science pushing the boundaries of human touch, National Geographic, June 2022


Once and while an article is so astonishing as to defy description and as we’ve said before, can only be read. This is one of those times. It is about the most elemental of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs–touch–and its restoration.

Here it is:

“The audacious science pushing the boundaries of human touch”

It’s the first sensation we feel, our most primal connection to others. Can implants and electrical signaling replicate the experience of touch? Research teams are exploring the possibilities—with startling results.

One afternoon in September 2018, six years after the work accident that destroyed his left forearm and hand in an industrial conveyor belt, a North Carolina man named Brandon Prestwood stood in front of his wife with an expression on his face that was so complicated, so suffused with nervous anticipation, that he looked torn between laughter and tears. In the little group gathered around the Prestwoods, someone held up a cell phone to record the curious tableau: the pretty woman with long hair and glasses, the bearded guy with a white elbow-to-fingertips prosthetic, and the wiring running from a tabletop electrical device up under the guy’s shirt and into his shoulder.

Right through the skin, that is, so that Prestwood—his body, not his prosthetic—was, for the moment, literally plugged in. As part of an audacious set of experiments by an international network of neurologists, physicians, psychologists, and biomedical engineers, Prestwood had let surgeons at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University slice into the end of his left arm and affix tiny electrical conductors to the truncated nerves and muscles. The surgeons then guided four dozen thread-thin wires up inside his half arm and out his shoulder. Afterward, whenever he peeled off the patch that covered them, Prestwood could see the wire leads poking out of his skin.Welp, yep, they’re wires, Prestwood would say to himself. Coming out of my arm.He’d wasted too much time lost in depression after the accident. He felt purposeful now. And for some months he’d been making regular trips to Cleveland so that researchers could help him fasten on an experimental prosthetic arm, one of a new generation of artificial limbs with internal motors and sensor-equipped fingers. These devices are of great interest to rehab experts, but what the Case Western Reserve team most wanted to study was not simply the improved control the new prostheses provide. What really fascinated the researchers—the focus of their exploration, each time they sat Prestwood down in the lab and plugged his wire leads into a computer—was the experience of human touch.